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Published: Monday, 11/15/2010

Prosecutors aim to wrap up case in '04 jail death

Wearing the badge and uniform that have distinguished him as the Lucas County sheriff for the past 26 years, James Telb appeared in federal court for two weeks, watching as his employees - one after another - were called to testify at his criminal trial.

Eighteen witnesses, including 12 employees of the sheriff's office, testified over eight days as federal prosecutors presented their case against Sheriff Telb, Internal Affairs Capt. Robert McBroom, and retired employees Sgt. John Gray and Deputy Jay Schmeltz.

The four are named in a 12-count indictment on criminal charges related to the 2004 death of inmate Carlton Benton and allegations of a subsequent cover-up.

Testimony of government witnesses focused on a revised coroner's ruling labeling the death a homicide, whistle-blowers among the sheriff's staff, and eyewitness accounts of the alleged sleeper hold that rendered a shackled Mr. Benton limp and unconscious.

The government's final witness, Special Agent Brian Russ, will return to the stand Tuesday to finish being questioned by defense attorneys.

"This is a case about abuse of power, deadly abuse of power," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Ryan McKinstry during his Nov. 1 opening statements.

"This is a case about a sergeant in the Lucas County jail who killed an inmate and a sheriff who covered it up," he said.

Gray Gray
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In the final days of testimony presented by federal prosecutors, two high-ranking sheriff's office employees testified that they contacted the FBI through a third-party about allegations of an inmate death at the hands of a jail officer.

Jon Rogers, head of the department's Internal Affairs division, and Assistant Jail Administrator Rico Staccone each testified last week that they took the matter of Mr. Benton's death to federal investigators because "it was the right thing to do."

Mr. Benton died June 1, 2004, at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center, two days after he was taken from the jail unconscious and unresponsive. He had just returned from the hospital after he was taken there May 28, 2004, after suffering from seizures, according to trial testimony.

At the time, his death was ruled natural.

Defense attorneys countered the government's claims of unnecessary force during opening statements, saying that for much of the time he was being transported from the hospital to the jail, Mr. Benton was combative and threatening.

They also noted that in 2004, the Lucas County Coroner's Office had ruled that Mr. Benton died as a result of a seizure disorder coupled with taking an anti-depressant medication.

McBroom McBroom
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They also noted that in 2004, the Lucas County Coroner's Office had ruled that Mr. Benton died as a result of a seizure disorder coupled with taking an anti-depressant medication.

The defense attorneys also pointed out to jurors that their clients are accused of making false statements to investigators about the incident during interviews years later.

"You'll decide whether it was a memory loss or whether it was a crime," said attorney Jon Richardson, who represents Captain McBroom.

Mr. Benton's death surfaced in 2008 during a disciplinary hearing for a corrections officer, prosecution witnesses testified. The officer had alleged that an inmate had been beaten in the jail by officers and died.

When investigated by the department's detectives and internal affairs division, Mr. Benton's name surfaced.

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

Schmeltz Schmeltz
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Three jail officers and one former employee testified that they escorted Mr. Benton into a medical cell at the jail after being released from the hospital where he had been treated for seizures. The men testified that Sergeant Gray applied a sleeper hold on the shackled inmate who they believed posed no threat.

Witnesses further testified that Mr. Benton was left in his cell and no medical attention was sought. But what happened in that cell was not recorded in any of the officers' reports, who testified that they were "scared" of the consequences.

When questioning the uniformed officers, defense attorneys asked about the department's written policies, especially those dealing with restraints. According to the rules displayed to jurors, inmates may not be handcuffed, except to be transported, without the approval of a shift supervisor.

In medical cells, such as where Mr. Benton was taken, restraints include soft and netted cuffs and must be used only if authorized by a nurse, the policy stated.

Sergeant Gray applied the sleeper hold after a combative Mr. Benton refused to allow officers to remove the restraints, police said.

Sgt. Matt Luettke, who was at the time the department's training officer, said that on the accepted use-of-force continuum, the application of a sleeper hold falls just below use of deadly force.

He also testified that force is used to gain control over an inmate so he can be brought into a state of compliance. Force is not typically used to control an already restrained person, he said.

"If you're using force to use force, that would be punitive and that's not our job," he said.

Federal prosecutors alleged that after Mr. Benton's death, Sergeant Gray was forced to resign. According to witness testimony, only Sheriff Telb would be able to make that happen.

Mr. Rogers testified last week that they were present for conversations in which Captain McBroom also said on two occasions that, "I got Gray to retire over this matter at the direction of Sheriff James Telb."

Mr. Staccone and Kenneth Perry, the former chief deputy sheriff, also testified that they heard the comment as well.

Also testifying was former jail administrator Rick Keller who said that he personally was present in 2004 when the sheriff was told that "John Gray killed the man."

Mr. Benton's manner of death was changed from natural to a homicide in March of this year.

Despite extensive questions from the defense about Mr. Benton's medical history and the lack of signs of injury, Lucas County Coroner Dr. James Patrick and deputy coroner Dr. Cynthia Beisser remained confident during their individual testimony in the revised verdict - that Mr. Benton died as a result of lack of oxygen to the brain triggered by an application of a sleeper hold.

"We now have an entirely different scenario than the one that we based our original decision on," Dr. Patrick testified about the information forwarded to his office by the FBI.

"Rather than a seizure … it was the application of the forearm hold that led to the probable cardiac event," the coroner said.

An outside forensic pathologist contacted by the federal investigators also testified that the death was a homicide.

When questioning the three forensic pathologists, defense attorney Richard Walinski spoke about "excited delirium" and asked whether Mr. Benton displayed symptoms of the disorder.

According to information provided by Mr. Walinski, excited delirium is a brain disorder - usually drug-induced - that occurs suddenly and includes symptoms of aggressive behavior, shouting, paranoia, unexpected physical strength, and violence toward others.

Although agreeing Mr. Benton was violent and aggressive, the doctors said they did not believe he had the disorder.

Prior to his death, Mr. Benton was a trusty at the jail, which is a position of trust given to those inmates who do not cause problems. When questioned by defense attorneys Friday, Agent Russ of the FBI acknowledged that Mr. Benton's behavior in the hospital and after returning to the jail was "very different."

According to jail officials, no acting sheriff was named pending the trial.

Instead, Sheriff Telb has maintained a presence at the department - in the morning and evening - throughout the past two weeks.

Sheriff Telb was re-elected for a sixth term in 2008. If convicted, he would be forced to resign.

Under Ohio law, a sheriff is responsible for the neglect of duty or misconduct of his deputies "if he orders, has prior knowledge of, participates in, acts in reckless disregard of, or ratifies the neglect of duty of misconduct in office of the deputy."

Ohio law also states that no one convicted of a felony, first-degree misdemeanor, or "any offense involving moral turpitude" may become sheriff. The statute would apply to a sitting sheriff as well.

Although some crimes, such as theft in office, would result in a public official losing his pension, not all felonies would result in that action.

If the office is vacant, it would be temporarily filled through an appointment of the county commissioners.

A permanent replacement would be selected by the central committee of the local Democratic party, because that is the political party to which Sheriff Telb belongs.

During opening statements, Sheriff Telb's attorney, Rick Kerger, pointed out that the sheriff is in charge of a large organization that operates "24/7."

He noted that while three of the government witnesses acknowledged not remembering aspects of the 2004 incident, "as soon as Sheriff Telb is not sure, bam … there's an indictment."

"It's a tragedy here, not doubt about it. Carlton Benton died at 25," Mr. Kerger told jurors.

"But that doesn't mean that any of these four men, who spent their lives in law enforcement, did anything wrong," he said.

The trial abruptly adjourned Friday during the defense questioning of Agent Russ when one of the attorneys collapsed.

The government is scheduled to conclude its case when the trial resumes tomorrow with Judge David Katz presiding.

The jury of eight women and seven men, including three alternates, will then hear the testimony of defense witnesses, including Captain McBroom and Sheriff Telb.

Contact Erica Blake at:

eblake@theblade.com

or 419-213-2134.



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