Oklahoma sheriff indicted for jail death
Anthony Huff tragically died in the Garfield County Jail in Oklahoma last year, after staff restrained him in a chair and failed to hydrate and feed him for two days, according to court documents unsealed and released to the public on July 25. But in a rare move, prosecutors in the state decided to hold the sheriff who oversees the jail and five other employees accountable for Huff’s death. At the urging of Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, a district attorney presented evidence to a grand jury in March to determine if a criminal case should proceed.
Last week, the jurors decided to charge all six defendants with second-degree manslaughter.
Details of the defendants’ involvement haven’t been revealed, but a separate civil lawsuit filed by Huff’s family outlines the events that led up to Huff’s death on June 8 of last year. Four days earlier, police had arrested the 58-year-old for public intoxication and brought him to the jail run by Sheriff Jerry Niles. Huff had previously been locked up at the facility, so staff allegedly knew he had various health problems— including heart disease, hypertension, depression, alcoholism— that required medication. But according to the suit, Huff didn’t receive a medical evaluation upon his arrival, and was restrained in a chair two days later. Routine checks weren’t conducted, cameras weren’t turned on to monitor him, and defendants “failed to ensure that Mr. Huff received sufficient food or water” for several days. The autopsy allegedly shows that very little medication was in Huff’s system when he died, indicating that staff also neglected to give him his prescriptions.
Huff perished “due to conditions related to his withdrawal from alcohol, and the effects it had on his body and system,” the suit says. Moreover, “lack of food and water from June 6, 2016, through June 8, 2016, exacerbated the conditions…and further caused or contributed to the death of Mr. Huff.”
Sheriff Niles is named as a defendant in both the civil and criminal cases. Last week, a grand jury made up of residents from all over Oklahoma decided that there’s enough evidence to proceed with a criminal case against him and five others, including his daughter-in-law.
Months before the grand jury convened, Attorney General Hunter tapped District Attorney Chris Boring to investigate Huff’s death. The Garfield County District Attorney had recused himself due to his relationship to the sheriff. Boring did what so many prosecutors are unwilling or unable to do: convince jurors that members of the law enforcement should stand trial for their behavior.
Approximately 1,000 people die in jail each year — many from sheer neglect or violence committed by correctional staff. But prosecutors are generally reluctant to charge anyone involved — or present strong cases to grand juries — for the same reasons they’re reluctant to charge police officers who kill. They have a cozy relationship with the rest of the law enforcement community — including the sheriffs running county jails — and hold them to a different legal standard than the rest of the public. They also hesitate to prosecute cases they think they’ll lose. Notably, neither Sheriff David Clarke nor lower-ranked staff have been charged for four deaths that occurred in the Milwaukee County Jail last year — even though a grand jury recommended charges be brought against seven people for cutting off a man’s water supply and letting him die of thirst.
Prison deaths are handled no differently than jail deaths. In Florida’s Dade Correctional Institute, Darren Rainey was forced into a scolding hot shower by four guards who then ignored his pleas for help. The 53-year-old, who suffered from schizophrenia, was found dead in the shower two hours later. Nobody was charged.
Last week’s grand jury indictment in Garfield County gives Huff’s relatives a rare chance to get justice. If convicted, Niles and the five other defendants involved could spend up to four years in prison.