A Latino military veteran is brain dead and his family is planning to decide today whether to take him off life support, following his scuffle with officers last week in one of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s jails.
Ernest “Marty” Atencio was injured early Friday morning, just hours after the Justice Department released a scathing report accusing the Arizona sheriff of running an agency that regularly violates the rights of Latinos.
Now, a lawyer representing Atencio’s family has told TPM the man’s relatives have flown in from out of state to say goodbye. “The family has gathered and is talking with doctors,” attorney Mike Manning said. “They will make a decision today as to what to do.”
Manning is a high-powered Phoenix lawyer with a history of winning major lawsuits against Arpaio. In 2000, he scored an $8.25 million settlement in a wrongful death case against the Maricopa County sheriff. In 2006, he and his team won a $9 million verdict in another wrongful death case against Arpaio.
There are still more questions than answers about what happened to Atencio after his arrest. Phoenix police said they took him to jail Thursday night after he was seen kicking on the door of an apartment and then harassing a woman walking down the street.
Officers arrested Atencio on suspicion of assault, processed him and took him to the Maricopa County jail for holding. At the jail, however, Atencio began struggling with officers from both Phoenix and Maricopa County law enforcement, according to statements by both agencies.
Neither department has detailed exactly what happened during the struggle. But doctors later determined he had been shocked at least four times with a Taser, according to the family’s attorney. The sheriff’s office said Atencio was soon put into a cell by himself and the jail’s medical staff discovered him unresponsive a short time later. (His booking mugshot is below.)
The family’s attorney said Atencio’s strange behavior can be explained by the fact that he suffers from bipolar disorder and was off his medication. A toxicology report by his doctors showed no sign of drugs or alcohol, Manning said.
The incident is confirmation of the DOJ accusations against Arpaio, the attorney said. “It is confirmation that Latino looking people are treated pretty harshly,” Manning said. “I think Latinos face an extra level or brutality and cruelty there.”
Both police agencies are now investigating the incident, but a spokesman for the Phoenix Police Department said there’s only so much his agency can do right now.
“To date, we have not been provided with specific details as to our officers (sic) actions during this struggle, in part because we have not been provided any video of this struggle by MCSO,” Sgt. Steve Martos wrote in a statement Monday.
Manning said Atencio’s family wants to see the video, too.
“There is no reason why they cannot release that video,” the attorney said. “We’re concerned about it being destroyed. Because that’s what the sheriff’s office always does in cases like this…We want that digital video released right away.”
A spokesman for Arpaio’s office declined to discuss any details of the video, including Manning’s allegations, because the case was still under investigation. Two years ago, the sheriff’s office admitted to destroying documents requested as part of a federal civil rights lawsuit.
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him: nick [at] talkingpointsmemo.com