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Spokane man’s death in Benton County Jail ruled accidental

Kevin T. Culp
 (The Spokesman-Review)
Kevin T. Culp (The Spokesman-Review)

A Spokane man died in Benton County after jailers there forced him into a restraint chair during a seizure, causing the man to suffocate, a coroner ruled Tuesday.

Kevin T. Culp, 29, was rendered brain dead by the Dec. 17 incident and died on Christmas Day. Amid criminal and internal investigations, Benton County Coroner John Hansens on Tuesday declared the manner of Culp’s death an accident and the cause of death asphyxiation from being placed in the restraint chair during a seizure.

“An aggravating circumstance was the discontinuation of his antiseizure medications,” Hansens said.

Culp stopped breathing about two hours before his medications arrived at the jail, Benton County Sheriff Steven Keane said.

“Initially, he was in seizure when (corrections officers) tried to control him,” Keane said. “In hindsight, it probably would have been better to let him come out of seizure.”

A struggle ensued when a nurse tried to check on Culp and he began to thrash. Two jailers responded to a call of a combative inmate and claimed that Culp bit and struck at them, the sheriff said. The officers shocked Culp with a Taser and carried him to a different cell. During that transfer, the officers dropped Culp, who struck his head.

Hansens said the autopsy showed that neither the Taser shock nor the fall contributed to Culp’s death.

“The sheriff indicates he believes Mr. Culp was unaware what he was doing. Understand the officers who were responding may not have all the history on this guy. They are called for a combative inmate and are responding to that type of situation,” Hansens said. “This was a very quick, very fluid situation.”

Keane, while acknowledging that patients have no control during seizures, said the officers reported that Culp seemed to be resisting their efforts to restrain him.

After subduing Culp in the restraint chair, he was left alone. When he was checked some 15 minutes later, he wasn’t breathing.

“I went to Spokane and met with the dad a few weeks after the incident and offered my condolences and provided him what details I could,” Keane said. “It was difficult, but I thought it was the right thing to do.”

The family has retained Spokane attorney Breean Beggs, who has spoken to all the Benton County officials.

“I can’t imagine that it would ever be proper to put someone having a seizure in a restraint chair,” Beggs said. “And if you do, you should closely monitor them. The cause of death is not being able to breathe. That could be cured by close observation.”

Keane said he has already changed policies and made sure that a pharmacy can almost immediately supply medications for inmates.

“Seizure meds may not be life-saving meds. But, I think we could have gotten it quicker, especially since he had a seizure over the weekend” prior to the incident, the sheriff said.

“I’m also evaluating the use of the restraint chair,” he said. Jailers need options to restrain some inmates, such as those trying to hurt themselves, he said. But research indicates that restraint chairs can be dangerous for inmates who have medical conditions, he said.

Culp was plagued by seizures for most of his life, Beggs said.

A seizure led to Culp’s criminal conviction in 2006. In July 2005, he stopped using his medications and three days later caused a crash on Interstate 90 near Post Falls that killed three members of the same family. First District Judge Charles Hosack sentenced Culp, then 22, to 7 ½ years in prison.

Through an agreement with Idaho prison officials, the Washington state Department of Corrections took over supervision of Culp. On Dec. 13 his urine tested positive for marijuana – days after possession of an ounce or less became legal in Washington – violating the terms of his parole.

Beggs said Culp “found relief from using medical marijuana.”

He initially was booked into the Spokane County Jail, which ordered Culp’s antiseizure medications. The jail doesn’t accept medications provided by an inmate’s family, Beggs said.

“It’s a little unclear from jail records, but it looks like the meds didn’t arrive before he was put on the transport to Benton County,” the attorney said.

Culp arrived there on Friday, Dec. 14. Keane said jail officials knew of Culp’s medical condition, especially after Culp suffered a seizure on Dec. 15.

Jailers moved Culp to a medical isolation unit next to the nurse’s station on Dec. 16.

“Keep in mind, we did offer him antiseizure medication, but he told us he’d had seizures since he was a kid. He said the other seizure meds were ineffective,” Keane said.

The medication Culp needed wasn’t a common medication or one that was on the list of medications approved by prison officials.

“So, we had to order it,” Keane said. Those medications arrived about “two hours after the incident” that resulted in his death, he said.

Had the medications been delivered, Culp “would be alive,” Beggs said. “I don’t think anyone is disputing that.”

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