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Published: Tuesday, 4/6/2010

Lucas County Coroner's office changes ruling and labels inmate's death a homicide

BY ERICA BLAKE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Dr. James Patrick said Monday that new information provided to his office by the FBI Jan. 20 resulted in a change as to the cause of death. He said that after reviewing the "voluminous" reports, the office issued a new ruling as well as an updated death certificate.

The coroner's office issued a verdict in 2004 labeling Mr. Benton's death as natural.

"On March 26, based on [new] information, which consists of eye witnesses stating, not that he had been found unresponsive but that he was placed in a sleeper hold, we changed the manner of death to homicide and cause of death asphyxia as a result of a sleeper hold," Dr. Patrick said.

The sheriff was charged in a 12-count indictment last year that also named John Gray, a retired sergeant; Jay Schmeltz, a retired deputy sheriff, and Capt. Robert McBroom, an investigator with the Internal Affairs Department.

The four men are scheduled to go to trial May 10 in U.S. District Court in Toledo before Judge David Katz.

Mr. Gray and Mr. Schmeltz were each charged with deprivation of rights under the color of law, two counts of falsification of a document, and one count of making false statements. A second charge of deprivation of rights under the color of law — which is filed against members of law enforcement who allegedly violate a person's civil rights while acting in their official capacity — was filed against Mr. Gray, who is accused of choking Mr. Benton and causing his death.

The sheriff and Captain McBroom were each charged with one count each of making false statements and misprision of a felony, or the cover-up of a crime.

Using preliminary guidelines, Sheriff Telb and Captain McBroom each could face up to three years in prison, if convicted. Mr. Schmeltz could face a sentence of up to 12 years and three months, and Mr. Gray could be sentenced to as long as 27 years behind bars, if convicted of the crimes.

Mr. Benton, who was 25 when he died, was being held in the Lucas County jail on aggravated murder charges in lieu of a $1 million bond. He was accused in the Feb. 12, 2004, slaying of his paralyzed cousin and the cousin's wife in their North Erie Street home and faced the death penalty if convicted.

According to jail records, Mr. Benton was taken from the jail to Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center on May 28, 2004, after having convulsions.

He was discharged May 30 and returned to the jail, where he was taken to a medical cell and restrained. Several corrections officers involved in transporting Mr. Benton to the medical cell alleged that a sheriff's sergeant "had a chokehold on him and kept it on him longer than he needed," according to information contained in the record.

Shortly after he was placed in the medical cell, a corrections officer noticed that Mr. Benton was not breathing, and he was returned to St. Vincent, where he died June 1, 2004.

Dr. Patrick said Monday that during the initially autopsy for Mr. Benton, the coroner was informed that the inmate was taken to the hospital after he had seizures in the jail, was returned to the jail, and later "found unresponsive." He said that the office was told that he was then returned to the hospital where he died as a result of lack of oxygen to the brain.

"The history of seizures and the fact that the drugs he was taking has seizures as a side effect, … we determined that his death was natural," Dr. Patrick said. He added that Mr. Benton had marks on his back but that it was determined to be a result of Mr. Benton's combative behavior at the hospital.

On the newly issued death certificate, Mr. Benton's cause of death is listed as "anoxic encephalopathy following application of a carotid sleeper hold." Listed as the source of injury was "altercation in jail."

Dr. Patrick clarified that it is not uncommon to have situations where few external marks are left on victims of asphyxiation. A sleeper hold can be one of them, he said.

"There were some marks. What there wasn't, was a lot of soft tissue injury underneath but there were marks on the neck itself," he said. "The amount of pressure required is not the same pressure required to cut off the airway. Instead it's the pressure required to cut off the flow of vessels in your neck."

With only relatively slight pressure, the blood vessels can be blocked causing unconsciousness, he said.

The coroner further noted that a sleeper hold is usually performed using an arm. If clothed, it is quite likely little bruising would occur, he said.

On the updated case summary of Mr. Benton's death, Dr. Patrick and Dr. Cynthia Beisser, the deputy coroner who performed the initial autopsy, noted that the "cause and manner of death are changed" as a result of "information generated by a federal investigation."

Dr. Patrick said his office rarely changes a ruling but that it has happened before - both times when new information became available.

In one case, a suicide was changed to a homicide when a juvenile admitted to playing around with guns with his friend, and in another, multiple members of a family died as a result of what initially was believed to be an accident but eventually was ruled a homicide.

"It is a rare occurrence. It is something we are perfectly willing to do if we have new information that was not initially available to us," he said. "In this case, the decision was not based on a change in observations at the time of the autopsy, it was based on the change of information we now have."

Mr. Telb declined to comment.

Attorney Rick Kerger, who represents Sheriff Telb, said yesterday that he was aware of the coroner's updated ruling. He declined to comment specifically on the change but said that the information "won't change our position on things."

He said that the sheriff intends to prove his innocence at trial and plans to keep his job.

Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates said yesterday that she was informed of the coroner's decision last week but had not yet seen any reports. She said her office plans to "wait and see" what happens with the federal case before her office makes a decision.

Because the death has been ruled a homicide, her office could potentially consider murder charges, she said. But no decisions will be made until her office receives all the information - likely at the conclusion of the federal case, Mrs. Bates said.

"Originally, the death was not ruled a homicide. If there is a change in the ruling and the cause of death, we'd have an obligation to do further investigation here," she said. A civil lawsuit filed by members of Mr. Benton's family is on hold in federal court pending the outcome of the criminal case. The complaint alleges wrongful death and lists the four men as defendants as well as the county.

Cleveland-based attorney Christopher Vlasich, who is representing the family, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Drs. Patrick and Beisser are listed as the government's expert witnesses for the upcoming criminal trial. During a March 22 hearing Judge Katz ordered the government to find out what "these two witnesses intend to testify to and provide that information in the form of a letter report to the defense counsel."

The judge ordered the information be provided by today.

Potential jurors have been called starting Monday into federal court, where they will be asked to fill out a questionnaire to help weed out those who are unable to serve.

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-213-2134.



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