Wrongful death suit filed after suicide in local jail moves forward

Milton Walker (left), Christopher Simpson (center), and Michael Crittenden. (Jail photos)
Milton Walker (left), Christopher Simpson (center), and Michael Crittenden. (Jail photos)(KWTX)
Published: Sep. 21, 2018 at 10:39 AM CDT
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A federal wrongful death lawsuit filed against the operators of McLennan County’s Jack Harwell Detention Center took a step forward Thursday as the judge and attorneys for both sides held a telephone conference.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Salvador Martinez and Gloria Martinez in connection with the Nov. 1, 2015 death of their son, Michael Martinez, names Southwestern Correctional, L.L.C., who does business as LaSalle Corrections, L.L.C and three individuals as defendants.

On Thursday U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeffrey C. Manske and attorneys representing both LaSalle and the Martinez’ spoke about pre-trial issues, especially discovery, and Manske told the lawyers to reach consensus on the issues or he would issue orders.

Manske also ordered “any Motions to Compel be filed on or before Friday, Oct. 19,” and then set another telephonic status conference for Oct. 23.

In his original complaint and request for trial, Austin attorney Jeff Edwards, who is representing the Martinez, claims Michael Martinez was transferred from the McLennan County Jail, having already attempted suicide there, on Sept. 18, 2015, and when he was delivered to the county-owned, but privately operated Harwell facility, his medical records were sent with him and there was noted that he was a suicide risk.

Protocol, according to Edwards, called for any inmate received at that facility who is known to be a risk to him or herself, any inmate with mental issues or anyone who has exhibited unusual behavior be assigned to a specific wing in the facility.

Michael Martinez was assigned to the proper wing, where rules call for an officer to have “face-to-face” contact with each inmate every 30 minutes.

The complaint says the officers assigned on the wing that night did what many in the Harwell center do, known as a “paper count,” meaning officers simply move a count from an earlier officer to a new page and sign off on it without making individual contact with anyone.

No employee at Harwell “had face-to-face contact with Michael Martinez on Nov. 1, 2015 from 2:05 a.m. until 5:35 a.m., when he was found hanging in his cell from a bed sheet he had woven through the metal smoke detector cover in his cell,” the complaint reads.

As well, the original complaint alleges, the three officers, Michael Crittenden, 26, Christopher Simpson, 26, and Milton Walker, 35, all named as defendants individually, “falsified records showing that they had conducted headcounts of the N-Wing at 30-minute intervals.”

Each man was indicted Feb. 16, 2016 and charged with tampering with a government record, a third degree felony punishable by up to 10 years in state prison.

The indictment was returned after investigators testified they had video surveillance from the wing that showed the three guards falsified count reports the night Michael Martinez died.

An attorney for the defendants filed an answer to the original charge saying the defendants issued a general denial to all the charges outlined in the complaint.

In the answer the defendants say: “Plaintiffs are not entitled to recover damages to the extent any of those damages were caused in whole or in part by the actions and/or omissions of plaintiffs including but not limited to Michael’s own actions in taking his life.”

“Defendants are not liable to, nor had any duty to take any action or avoid any omission for the benefit of (Michael Martinez) insofar as the acts and/or omissions of which plaintiffs complain could not be avoided,” the answer reads.

The answer says LaSalle and its employees did not act with negligence, recklessness or with indifference.

The defendants’ behavior was “objectively reasonable in light of clearly established law, and duties, including both state and federal law, and the authority granted it under contract with McLennan County, Texas,” the answer says.

The case still is in the pre-trial stage and has not yet been docketed for trial.