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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The jury weighed in, but the missing jail video leaves questions

Cindy Lou Hill is seen in this undated photo provided by her family. Hill, then 55, died in August 2018 at the Spokane County Jail in a case that is now the center of a lawsuit against both the county and the health care provider contracted at the jail.  (Family of Cindy Lou Hill)
Cindy Lou Hill is seen in this undated photo provided by her family. Hill, then 55, died in August 2018 at the Spokane County Jail in a case that is now the center of a lawsuit against both the county and the health care provider contracted at the jail. (Family of Cindy Lou Hill)

Once again, in the resolution of a lawsuit that raises allegations of misconduct in the justice system, there will be a payment to the victims’ family, but no real answer for the public on a crucial question.

Spokane County and the firm that provides medical care in the jail were slapped with a $27 million judgment in federal court this week, in the case of a woman who died in custody.

Most of that payment is punishment leveled by jurors against NaphCare – punitive damages for the 2018 death of Cindy Lou Hill, who perished from an infection caused by a ruptured duodenum several hours after alerting medical staff about stomach pains so intense she couldn’t walk.

“A grocery store would do more if someone slipped and fell in their aisles,” the attorney for Hill’s estate, Edwin Budge, said.

A key element in the case was more than six hours of missing security camera footage from the jail – footage covering the period from shortly after Hill first complained of severe stomach pain until not long before she was found dead.

What a suspiciously timed omission. The gap included all the actions jail staff took after Hill reported her condition, a period in which logs indicate guards checked on her several times.

The judge in the case – while rejecting the county’s efforts to extricate itself from legal liability – was unsparing: the county allowed the footage to be overwritten, U.S. District Court Judge Mary Dimke said, “in an attempt to avoid its litigation obligations.”

This was why Dimke rejected the county’s efforts to get itself off the legal hook back in May, when its attorney argued that it has no responsibility for medical issues in the jail – saying the county deals only with corrections issues and thus had no liability.

The county will pay a small portion of the overall judgment for Hill’s pain and suffering and “loss of enjoyment of life” – $275,000 of the $2.75 million. NaphCare will pay the rest, plus $24 million in punitive damages, at least if its bid for a new trial is not successful.

But what in the world happened to that footage? Who erased it and why? How did it come to pass that footage just before, and just after, this critical period was not erased?

Lt. Don Hooper, the interim jail director, said in an interview last week that the county attempted to provide all the relevant footage in the case. The jail video system typically overwrites itself after 60 days unless footage is preserved.

When major crimes detectives initially requested video, in their investigation of the incident right after it happened and long before a lawsuit was filed, they sought footage of the initial complaint alerting staff that Hill was in pain and her subsequent move to a medical cell, and from the time later in the day when she was seen again by medical staff.

The detectives at that time “had requested the hour before and the hour after the death,” he said.

The moments in between were not part of that request, he said. The jail preserved all the video that was requested, he said, and provided it during the lawsuit.

Hill, 55, was arrested in August 2018 for heroin possession. Four days later, she complained of intense abdominal pain, and a NaphCare nurse found her curled up on the cell floor, screaming in pain.

Hill was unable to walk to the cell door to be examined – and protocols prevented the nurse from entering the cell without a guard – so her cellmate dragged her to the door to be looked at.

Hill was then moved to a medical cell. According to news accounts in The Spokesman-Review, footage showed that transfer at 9:10 a.m. The next footage turned over was recorded at 4 p.m.

During the six-hour gap, a log shows guards checked on Hill 10 times, and that a nurse examined her once. Hill refused medical care at one point. She was found dead at 5:24 p.m.

The suit argued that NaphCare was negligent in its treatment of Hill, and that it denied her constitutional rights by failing to provide medical care.

The company’s attorney had argued the nurse who examined Hill had provided appropriate care, Hill’s vital signs were good in the morning, and her symptoms were consistent with heroin withdrawal.

“She used her best clinical judgment based on what she knew at the time,” the attorney, Ketia Wick, said. “The cause of Ms. Hill’s death was an unexpected, sudden condition that no one could have known about.”

The jury disagreed, obviously, and this may bring a measure of justice for Hill’s family and serve to spur improvements at the jail, which saw eight deaths over a 14-month period including this incident.

At the end of the day, though, the case of the missing six hours remains unsolved.

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