Spokane County Detention Services could not explain to a federal judge why more than six hours of video surveillance footage key to a wrongful death claim was allowed to be overwritten.
Now, Spokane County has been found legally liable in the death of 55-year-old Cindy Lou Hill in August 2018. U.S. District Court Judge Mary Dimke ruled last month that the county allowed the video to be overwritten, in a process that takes place automatically after 60 days, “with an intent to avoid its litigation obligations.”
In response to written questions asking whether the county had begun any investigation into the loss of the video and who was responsible, a spokesman declined comment, citing “the fact that the County is still actively involved in pending litigation.”
Dimke entered what’s known as a default judgment against Spokane County on May 12 prior to a scheduled jury trial in July. At that trial, Spokane County will only be able to argue the amount it must pay in damages to Hill’s estate, not its legal responsibility for her death.
Hill was booked into Spokane County Jail on Aug. 21, 2018, on a warrant for drug possession. She told a nurse with NaphCare, the company the county contracts with to provide medical services at the jail, that she was a heroin user. That prompted periodic examinations by nursing staff of her withdrawal symptoms.
On Aug. 25, when a nurse arrived just before 9 a.m. to perform one of those exams, Hill complained of abdominal pain that was so severe she couldn’t approach the cell door in order to be examined, according to court records. Because of jail policies, the nurse could not enter the cell without a guard, so Hill’s cellmate dragged her to the door in order for the nurse to perform palpitations to determine her level of pain. The nurse ordered that Hill be moved by wheelchair to a medical wing, where inmates are to be observed every half-hour by guards.
A camera close to the cell in the medical wing where Hill was moved to recorded the transfer at 9:10 a.m. The next footage provided by the county from that camera is recorded at 4 p.m. The county has not provided an explanation for the gap.
During that time, handwritten logs indicate guards observed Hill at 10:15 a.m., 11:09 a.m., 11:23 a.m., 12:07 p.m., 12:40 p.m., 1:10 p.m., 1:43 p.m., 1:58 p.m., 2:30 p.m., 3 p.m. and 3:20 p.m. The nurse also reported attempting an examination sometime after 3 p.m. that Hill refused.
The video footage of those encounters was not preserved by the county, though footage before and after the move was. That included when guards attempted to contact Hill at 5:24 p.m., when she was found without a pulse and not breathing. An autopsy later found that Hill’s intestine had ruptured, spilling gastric acid into her abdomen and causing an infection that killed her.
Hill’s death was one of eight in a 14-month period at the jail.
Under questioning, both Michael Sparber, who is the current detention services director but was not in charge of the jail at that time, and Don Hooper, the lieutenant assigned to the downtown jail in August 2018, said they couldn’t explain why the footage had not been preserved when it was standard procedure to save all video and written evidence following a jail death. The jail’s system automatically overwrites recorded video after 60 days.
“I can only speculate, no,” Hooper said in a deposition taken in July 2021. “So no. For sure, no, I do not.”
“It would not have been appropriate,” Sparber said in a deposition taken in August 2021. “However, our system has a purging system, an automatic purging system, and I’m not sure if this took place when that was in place.”
Sparber was named interim director of detention services in February 2019, six months after Hill died in the jail. John McGrath, who’d led the jail for a decade, resigned in January 2019.
When Dimke asked the county’s attorney at a March hearing if there was some other explanation than an intentional choice not to preserve the video, the attorney replied that “(he) wished (he) had some explanation for the court,” according to testimony.
“Spokane County offers the Court no explanation – credible or otherwise – about why someone at Spokane County Detention Services made the intentional choice to preserve video from 8:43 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. yet chose to allow the portion from 9:15 a.m. to 4 p.m. to be permanently destroyed,” Dimke wrote in her decision.
The county argued that it had produced some video taken of the jail wing supporting the written logs. However, that video is from a camera pointing a different direction down the same hallway, not at the front of Hill’s cell.
Dimke’s ruling does not affect medical negligence and civil rights violation claims against NaphCare and the nurse. Hill’s attorneys argue she should have been seen by a primary care provider after complaining of the abdominal pain, and that the nurse’s account of the interaction with Hill during the 3 p.m. meeting was not consistent with the pain she would have been suffering from the ruptured intestine. Experts relied upon by NaphCare say that Hill did not show the symptoms typically associated with the injury that killed her.
A Spokane jury will be asked to weigh that evidence at a trial scheduled to begin July 11. NaphCare has sought to argue its case separately from Spokane County because of the default judgment already entered finding the jail at fault.
Ed Budge, Hill’s attorney at the firm Budge & Heipt, declined to comment on the case. An attorney for NaphCare did not return a request for comment.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct Michael Sparber’s role at the time of the in-custody death.