UPDATE, 4:15 p.m.: A federal jury decided Tuesday that Montgomery County did not violate David O. Cooper’s 14th amendment rights when it didn’t provide a mattress for parts of his 2012 stay in the county jail.
The jury of six men and two women deliberated for about an hour before reaching its verdict in Dayton’s U.S. District Court. The lawsuit was the first of several against the county alleging abuse and/or neglect in the jail to reach trial. Four others ended with out-of-court settlements. Several others are pending.
“We are very pleased with today’s verdict,” said Mary E. Montgomery, the chief of the civil division of the county prosecutor’s office. “Montgomery County, and the Sheriff’s Office, accommodated the inmate in every way possible in order to protect him from his self‐harming behavior.
“The jury agreed with us, and determined there was no violation of his rights while he was incarcerated at the jail. Accordingly, the jury did not award the plaintiff any monetary damages.”
Major Matt Haines, who oversees the jail operations, issued a statement that read, in part: “Each day the staff of our jail is forced to deal with inmates who exhibit increasingly difficult and complex mental health illnesses and extreme behavioral issues. As the number of mental health beds in state and privately funded hospitals has diminished and the opioid crisis has crippled our region, the county jail has seen a surge in the number inmates with mental illness, addiction issues, or both.”
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Plaintiff’s attorney John Helbling said: “I still think the conditions he was under were atrocious.”
Helbling said the jury had to find deliberate indifference to side with his client and that the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has not ruled that a mattress is a constitutional right for inmates whereas other jurisdictions have.
EARLIER: An 8-member federal jury is deciding if a mattress is a basic necessity of modern life and, along with it, the civil rights lawsuit of a former Montgomery County Jail inmate who sued the county.
The jury heard closing arguments Tuesday in Dayton’s U.S. District Court in David O. Cooper’s lawsuit against Montgomery County.
After lunch, U.S. District Court Judge Walter Rice gave instructions to the jury, which began to deliberate at about 2:30 p.m.
To prove liability and possibly award damages, Cooper’s attorney said he needed to convince the jury that one or more Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office employees violated Cooper’s 14th amendment due process rights “by depriving him of the minimal civilized measures of life’s necessities” and that they were deliberately indifferent.
Plaintiff’s attorney John Helbling also said he needed to prove that the custom and policy of the sheriff’s office was the moving force behind the actions.
Cooper, 35, has alleged that for about 3½ months of his nearly 8-month jail stay in 2012, he wasn’t provided a mattress and was forced to sleep in a brightly-lit, air-conditioned, noisy glass cell with no blanket wearing just a “suicide” robe.
“He begged and pleaded with them to get that mattress,” Helbling told the jury’s six men and two women. “The answer always came back the same: No.”
County attorney Mary Montgomery said round-table discussions were held by staff about Cooper, that “a mattress is not a minimum of life’s necessities” and that the jail did everything it could to keep Cooper alive. “If he had died, we’d still be here because they’d say we didn’t do enough.”
Both sides agreed that Cooper harmed himself in jail and those resulting in trips to medical and behavior health facilities.
“Even when he showed signs of distress, they didn’t do anything,” Helbling said. “The only place he’s being treated as a human was at a hospital.”
Montgomery said Cooper was one who drove his destiny and that the “jail was damned if they did and damned if they didn’t,” she said, adding later that he was conniving and manipulative. “He didn’t like being in the jail. Well, who does?”
If the jury finds Montgomery County liable of the 14th amendment claim, they could award damages to Cooper.
“We don’t want your sympathy. That’s not what this is about. It’s about right and wrong,” Helbling told the jury. “The only thing we can get for Mr. Cooper is to be adequately compensated. It was not a one-shot deal. It was month after month after month. What’s it worth? That’s up to you.”
Montgomery said the jury didn’t have to get any farther than the first part of the jury instructions.
“You don’t even have to get to damages,” she said. “He was not deprived of life’s minimum necessities. A mattress is not part of that.”
The civil lawsuit is the first of several filed against jail staff in recent years for alleged abuse and/or neglect to go to trial.
Four other cases have settled for $888,000 plus the county spent another $444,000 on outside legal counsel and litigation costs, according to county records. Other cases are pending.
JUSTICE IN THE JAILHOUSE: Lawsuits, accusations plague region’s county jails