A powerful Arizona lawyer called for a criminal investigation into some of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s officers on Thursday after a long-awaited autopsy determined they were partly to blame for the death of Latino military veteran in December.
Attorney Michael Manning told TPM he planned to ask for an outside agency to examine the case of Ernest “Marty” Atencio, who lost consciousness and later died following a fight with law enforcement officers inside one of the sheriff’s jails in Phoenix.
Manning said the results of an autopsy released this week, six months after the death, proved what surveillance footage from the jail had already led him to believe: that Atencio would still be alive if sheriff’s detention officers and Phoenix cops hadn’t ganged up on him, pinned him down and given him electric shocks with a stun gun.
“When you look at the report, coupled with the video of Marty’s torture and death, plus interviews with witnesses, it confirms that this was a fairly gratuitous manslaughter of Marty Atencio,” Manning said. “They took it to the lethal level and really killed him in an absolute jailer riot.”
A military veteran with a history of schizophrenia, Atencio was arrested by Phoenix police on suspicion of assault and brought to one of Arpaio’s jails in the early morning of Dec. 16, 2011. The arrest took place just hours after the Justice Department released a scathing report accusing the sheriff and his office of regularly abusing the civil rights of Latinos.
Surveillance video released just days after the death showed that at some point during the booking process Atencio folded his arms and backed up against a wall. That’s when officers grabbed him and began to wrestle him to the ground. During the struggle, the video showed, one of the sheriff’s detention officers used a stun gun to shock Atencio into submission. Soon he was dragged into a holding cell, where he was stripped naked and left laying motionless on the floor for several minutes until medical help was called. He was quickly declared brain dead and several days later was taken off life support.
On Thursday, Manning, who is representing Atencio’s family, said they are considering a lawsuit against the sheriff’s office and Phoenix Police Department.
Manning also gave TPM a copy of the autopsy report prepared by the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office after an exhaustive six month investigation that included interviews with police and other jail inmates.
The report blamed the death on “complications of cardiac arrest in the setting of acute psychosis, law enforcement subdual, and multiple medical problems.” However, the examiner declined to say whether it was an accident or a homicide, instead marking the manner of death as “undetermined.”
The report also showed that Atencio, 44, was in pretty poor health on the night of the arrest, with heart problems, high blood pressure and a long history of psychological issues, including schizophrenia and depression. He also had a history of alcohol and methamphetamine abuse, though a separate toxicology report showed he was sober the night of his arrest with only traces of antidepressants and Tylenol in his blood and urine.
Manning said on Thursday that fellow jail inmates have said officers there used Atencio’s mental health issues to taunt and toy with him while they were booking him.
“They knew he was mentally ill. They teased him. They mocked him. They tried to make him clown for them and ultimately ganged up on him and killed him,” Manning said. “They were playing with him. It was sport to them that night.”
Representatives of both the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office and Phoenix Police Department declined to talk about autopsy report, citing potential lawsuits.
However, Lisa Allen, a spokeswoman for the sheriff, took the opportunity to bash the family’s lawyer, a longtime foe of Arpaio who has a history of winning big dollar lawsuits and settlements against the sheriff. In 2000, Manning secured an $8.25 million settlement from the Arpaio in a wrongful death case. In 2006, he and his team won a $9 million verdict against Arpaio in another wrongful death case.
“Mike Manning is not always familiar with the truth when it pertains to this Office and this Sheriff,” Allen wrote in an email. “Manning appears willing to use lies and deceit to denigrate the detention profession — always with the ultimate goal in mind — to secure more money from taxpayers for himself.”
Since the death in December, the Justice Department has filed a wide-ranging lawsuit against Arpaio and his office, accusing them of abusing the civil rights of Latinos. Atencio’s case was not among those cited by the federal lawyers, however mistreatment of Latinos in the jails was one of several themes of the suit. The lawsuit followed a Dec. 15, 2011 report that documented the civil rights violations and was released just hours before Atencio’s arrest.
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