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Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014 12:01 am

Settling affairs

Carlock costs taxpayers millions

Paul Carlock


Sangamon County sheriff Neil Williamson called me on Monday night, less than an hour after a county board committee finally deciphered writing that’s been on the wall for nearly seven years now.

The county, even if it had prevailed in court, could not possibly win a lawsuit filed by the family of A. Paul Carlock, who died after a struggle with jail guards on Nov. 16, 2007. That much was obvious to anyone who has been following the case. A trial would have lasted a month or so, adding to an already record-high legal tab of $2.6 million for the county, which is self-insured. And that was the best-case scenario. Had the plaintiff prevailed, the county would have paid a lot more.

By that rubric, $2.575 million to the plaintiffs, roughly doubling down on the county’s legal fees while getting out of the casino, was a smart move. The question, of course, is why the county stayed at the litigation table as long as it did. It’s ugly calculus, which is why Williamson deserves credit for calling me before I called him.

Williamson stuck with a long-familiar line – jailers didn’t do anything wrong.

“Overall, from the sheriff office’s viewpoint, it’s rather distasteful,” Williamson said.

Mike Sullivan, the county board member who chaired Monday’s meeting of the board’s civil liability committee that approved the settlement, said he’s concerned that settling cases gives the impression that people can sue the county for a quick buck, a line that county officials have used over and over again to defend the protracted litigation.  It is the same logic immortalized by Alfred Lord Tennyson in “Charge of the Light Brigade.”

About the best argument the county had was that Mary Carlock, the plaintiff, had filed for divorce after her husband’s arrest, setting her up as a gold digger out to loot county coffers. After that, there were the facts of the case, which aren’t pretty.

Carlock, a diabetic, lost nearly 30 pounds during the 39 days that he spent in the county jail, held for federal authorities who suspected that he was a child molester. The plaintiffs say that he didn’t receive insulin as needed, nor was he properly fed, and his condition deteriorated to the point that he was incoherent, wearing feces-stained clothing, weeping and drinking from a urinal and insisting that he was a newlywed Indian. Blood tests taken the day before he died revealed that he was suffering from liver and renal failure. Lithium levels in his blood were toxic.

Jailers responded as if Carlock were a widget instead of a seriously ill man who couldn’t follow directions because he was out of his mind due to poor medical care. When he yelled and banged on his cell door, they would taser him and put him in a restraint chair for hours. When he wouldn’t put on a shirt to go to the hospital on the day he died, they killed him. They knew from blood tests that his medical condition was so precarious that he needed to go to a hospital, but instead of letting him leave his shirt behind, they fought with him. Tasered him after he’d been cuffed. At some point, he defecated. A guard weighing nearly 300 pounds sat on Carlock while he was prone, so unsure whether it was the right thing to do that he asked a colleague whether he should be doing it.

When guards finally figured out that Carlock wasn’t moving anymore, they did nothing to help him. No CPR. No artificial respiration. Nothing save an ammonia capsule placed under Carlock’s nose that drew no response. By the time paramedics arrived and found neither pulse nor respiration, it was too late. He arrived at the emergency room with bruises, broken front teeth and a dozen fractured ribs.

Making matters worse, the county in the aftermath destroyed emails from jail employees about Carlock, even though they were supposed to have been preserved. A surveillance camera that should have captured the fatal struggle was either not working or not turned on, the county said.

On its side, the county had Dr. Jessica Bowman, the county’s former pathologist so discredited in other cases that prosecutors won’t use her as a witness, who concluded that Carlock died of a heart attack that could have happened anytime. Otherwise, there was a doctor who said Carlock died from renal failure brought on by poor medical care and a pathologist who opined it was an irregular heartbeat triggered by the struggle with guards. Lawyers for the plaintiff say it was positional asphyxiation. It is, after all, difficult to breathe when you are prone, cuffed and getting tased while an overweight guard sits on your back, all while your liver and kidneys are shutting down. Because you wouldn’t put on a shirt.

This was an unwinnable case that turned into an epic waste of taxpayer money. It begged for someone to dispassionately assess the evidence and draw the only rational conclusion: Settle sooner rather than later and stop the bleeding. The county had plenty of chances. The plaintiffs asked for mediation in hopes of settling the case in January of last year. No dice. U.S. District Court Judge Sue Myerscough ordered a settlement conference in October of last year, telling the county to send representatives with full authority to settle the case. No dice. Judge Meyerscough then told the parties last fall that former U.S. District Court Judge Harold Baker was available to act as a mediator. No dice.

Instead, the case turned into a wet dream for litigators who bill by the hour. Was Sullivan, the county board member who presided at Monday’s meeting, satisfied with the quality of legal services the county got for the $2.6 million it paid to attorneys for the law firm of Hinshaw Culbertson, who defended the Carlock case but remained mute at the committee meeting and sat outside during an executive session held before the vote?

“Not totally,” Sullivan answered without giving details. And he, apparently, is not alone.

On Monday, the same day the settlement became public, the county quietly replaced Hinshaw Culbertson in an excessive-force lawsuit filed by the family of Patrick Burns, who died in 2010 after sheriff’s deputies deployed Tasers more than 20 times while arresting him. Now, attorneys for Heyl, Royster, Voelker and Allen will handle the Burns matter, the latest in a growing number of lawsuits involving the sheriff’s office that have been assigned to that firm instead of Hinshaw Culbertson.

The sheriff insists that he has no complaints about Hinshaw Culbertson. Then why has the county gone elsewhere for legal help?

“That decision was made over my head,” Williamson says.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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