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Cover Story

Why have jail suicides soared under Sheriff Ortiz's watch?

Photo: Chuck Kerr, License: N/A

Chuck Kerr

Photo: , License: N/A

Inmates that have taken their lives at the jail under Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz's watch: Robert Rodriguez (above), Adrian Rodriguez (below)

Photo: N/A, License: N/A

Local attorney Sonia Rodriguez, who's currently looking into one jail suicide case, that of Adrian Rodriguez, says it's still unclear, given the way the courts have ruled, how any family can win in a wrongful death suit against a jail. She points to a case filed in federal court in Fort Worth in 2006. Tarrant County jail inmate Ignacio Nunez had been jailed for public intoxication. When he became combative with officers during intake, guards put him in a cell to calm down at about 9:30 p.m. According to the lawsuit, guards left Nunez there unmonitored until just before 6 a.m. the following day. Officers found him hanging by his shoelaces.

Dismissing the case on summary judgment in 2007, a federal judge wrote, "Although hindsight might show that the officer's choices were ill-advised, even grossly neligent," the plaintiffs couldn't prove "subjective deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of harm" to the inmate. "How are you ever going to prove that? Number one, someone was aware of the fact that someone was going to hurt themselves, and number two, that they drew that inferrence and didn't care?" Rodriguez asked. "I've been looking and looking and looking to see if a court has ever found 'subjective deliberate indifference' in any of these cases. I can't find a single one that has."

As Ortiz approaches re-election, his jail has so far seen two suicides in 2012.

Corey Hiller, 36, took his own life in the jail's infirmary, hours before he was set to appear at his first pre-trial hearing on charges he fatally stabbed his ex-girlfriend, her good friend, and seriously injured his ex-girlfriend's son. One officer reported he saw Hiller sitting on his bed at 3:10 a.m., according to jail records, but by 4:15 a.m. Hiller wouldn't respond to questions. Surprisingly, the report says the observation log books showed "all checks were conducted within the 30 minute time frame."

"[I]t appears as though the Decedent committed suicide by tying a sheet to the base of the hospital bed, and used the electronic controls to elevate the bed; thus strangling himself," one incident report notes.

The Current couldn't reach the family of Robert Rodriguez, the inmate who self-reported that he suffered major anxiety, problems with "mind and body," and wasn't receiving previously prescribed medication, but his mother told officers the day after his death he'd long had problems battling both physical and mental illness. "As far as placing them on suicidal watch, it's not our call," said Bexar County Jail Administrator Thomas. "From past experiences, we can identify actions, we can identify the things we think are out of the ordinary, and we did here. But ultimately we don't have the authority to say, 'Yea, he's suicidal.' We may feel someone's acting out or mental or something, but we don't make that call."

Rodriguez's cellmate had just moved into the cell on June 27, 2012. He noticed Rodriguez seemed upset when he returned from the infirmary just after noon. Rodriguez, according to records, told him "he was tired of being in jail and was only here for misdemeanor charges yet had been here for two weeks."

Lying on the cell's top bunk, the cellmate heard Rodriguez below him muttering, "I'm sorry God" as he worked the plastic spoon into his shunt. The cellmate then heard what he thought was running water. He hit the cell's call button, frantically pounding on the door, when saw it was blood.

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