Sometimes with a smile, other times with an air of contention, Lucas County Sheriff James Telb testified in federal court Thursday about his decades as the elected sheriff and the allegations that led to criminal charges against him.
The sheriff testified that he did not recall being informed in 2004 of allegations of the death of an inmate in his jail at the hands of an officer.
But during a sometimes combative exchange with a federal prosecutor, he acknowledged that allegations of such a death should have been investigated and information forwarded to the coroner's office.
Sheriff Telb testified in his own defense as the third week of his criminal trial in U.S. District Court nears an end.
The seven-term sheriff is charged with covering up the 2004 death of inmate Carlton Benton and of lying to federal officers investigating the matter four years later.
The sheriff said with certainty that he "absolutely" did not do what he was accused of in a federal indictment handed up in April, 2009.
"I didn't lie, I just didn't recall," he said. He also testified that if he did remember, "I wouldn't be sitting up here."
Prosecutors allege that Mr. Benton's death was triggered by a sleeper hold, applied by retired Sgt. John Gray in the jail's medical unit.
In the first weeks of the trial, several witnesses testified that a fully shackled Mr. Benton was placed in a sleeper hold until he was rendered unconscious.
Also testifying were the Lucas County coroner and deputy coroner who said they were not informed of the hold in 2004. The office has since revised its original verdict that Mr. Benton's death was natural and earlier this year ruled it a homicide.
Sheriff Telb testified for about three hours Thursday, much of the time firmly clasping his hands in front of him. He spoke of his background, training, and sheriff's duties and even laughed as he acknowledged that he sometimes asks himself "particularly these last two or three weeks" why he ran for sheriff in 1984.
He also testified that he is ultimately responsible for the sheriff's office, but that he expects his employees to do their jobs and keep him informed. The sheriff further testified that, even if he were aware of the allegations of a sleeper hold, it would have been the job of jail administrator Rick Keller to inform the coroner.
"I've never talked to the coroner in 26 years. … My corrections administrator always addressed that," he testified, adding that it was the administrator's job and not the sheriff's to ensure that information previously omitted from reports was passed on to the coroner.
Mr. Keller had testified earlier that he would not have been involved in an internal investigation because that was not his role in jail operations. He also had said that "unless I was directed" by the sheriff, he would not have shared information with the coroner that was not on reports.
When confronted by federal prosecutor Kristy Parker with the recent courtroom statements of several of his employees, including that they reported in 2004 to witnessing "excessive force" being used and that he was made aware of it, the sheriff often said he could not recall the specific testimony.
Sheriff Telb said he was not aware of state laws that required law enforcement to report facts about suspicious deaths to the county coroner or that forbid excessive force being used by law enforcement officers.
"I'm sure John Gray had a reason for doing it the way he did," the sheriff testified, adding that the only laws he knew of against excessive force were when "federal law twists it to be a civil rights issue."
The sheriff, who faces three years in prison if convicted, testified as the seventh witness in the defense case. Earlier in the day, attorneys questioned a second defense medical expert who said that Mr. Benton's death was not likely a result of the sleeper hold.
Dr. James Sander, a neurologist at the Toledo Clinic, testified that he reviewed Mr. Benton's medical records and that the damage to the inmate's brain wouldn't have occurred on May 30, 2004, when an alleged sleeper hold was applied, but instead a day or even two before.
Mr. Benton, 25, died June 1, 2004, in Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center, two days after he was taken from the jail unconscious and unresponsive.
He just had returned from the hospital where he had been admitted May 28, 2004, because he had suffered seizures.
Federal prosecutors allege that Mr. Benton's death was triggered by a sleeper hold applied soon after he returned to the jail on May 30, 2004.
But although the doctor believed that the damage had occurred when Mr. Benton was in a critical situation during his first stay in the hospital, he acknowledged that "something happened" that caused Mr. Benton to be rendered unconscious once he was returned to the jail.
Wednesday, a cardiologist retained by the defense testified that Mr. Benton suffered significant organ damage after having multiple seizures in the hospital. He said that the inmate was "near death" several times.
Sergeant Gray, who retired in June, 2004, is charged with violating civil rights when he allegedly applied the sleeper hold that rendered Mr. Benton unconscious. Mr. Benton, 25, was in custody at the time on aggravated murder charges.
The sheriff and Internal Affairs Captain Robert McBroom, who conducted the 2004 internal affairs investigation of the death, are charged with covering up a felony and providing false information to the FBI. Retired Deputy Jay Schmeltz is charged with falsifying reports, pushing a shackled Mr. Benton, resulting in a fall, and providing false information to the FBI.
Also testifying Thursday was a retired jail counselor who said he saw Mr. Benton briefly on May 30, 2004, as he was being escorted through the booking area. David Rayman testified that he overheard Mr. Benton "yelling and screaming and talking of suicide."
Mr. Rayman said he immediately placed Mr. Benton on suicide watch. But he acknowledged that he did not see the inmate allegedly being pushed to the ground.
Testifying on behalf of Sheriff Telb Thursday was Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre, who like Toledo Mayor Mike Bell and Pickaway County Sheriff Dwight Radcliff the day before, said he believed the sheriff to be an "honest man."
Each of the character witnesses acknowledged that they did not have first-hand knowledge of the criminal case and testified that they would expect the sheriff to give them information that was pertinent to them doing their jobs.
The trial will resume Friday.
The jury of seven men and eight women has heard 11 days of testimony including 18 witnesses called by federal prosecutors and the seven witnesses called by the defense.
Still to testify is Captain McBroom, who will take the stand in his own defense.
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