June 20, 2018
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Parts of attempted suicide lawsuit against Knox County Jail remain

By Stephen Betts, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — A federal judge issued a split decision last week concerning a lawsuit filed more than two years ago by the mother of an inmate whose son suffered extensive brain damage after an attempted suicide at the Knox County Jail.

U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torresen ruled in favor of Knox County, the jail, Sheriff Donna Dennison, the jail administrator and the assistant jail administrator on all counts brought against them. But the federal judge refused to throw out the allegations against six of the jail employees in connection with the October 2009 attempted suicide of Matthew Lalli.

The lawsuit against those six workers may head to trial, although no date has been scheduled.

Attorney Peter Marchesi, who represents the county and its officials, said while a final decision has not been made, there may be an appeal filed with the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston on behalf of some of the remaining defendants in the case.

He said the earliest a trial would be held, barring a settlement, would be spring 2014.

Matthew Lalli was found hanging in his jail cell on Oct. 5, 2009. He suffered permanent and severe brain damage, according to the lawsuit. The cost of the institutional care alone will be more than $9 million, according to the suit brought by his mother Cathy Penn of Waldoboro.

Attorney Daniel Stevens, one of the attorneys representing Penn, said they were pleased with the judge’s decision to allow the case against six corrections officers to go to trial but that they otherwise reserved comment on the decision.

Penn filed the lawsuit in September 2011. In December 2012, the county defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which means that they asked the judge to rule in their favor without the matter going to trial.

Penn alleged in her lawsuit that the county violated her son’s constitutional rights by its deliberate indifference to his threats that he was going to kill himself.

Judge Torreson agreed that Knox County, the jail, the sheriff, Jail Administrator John Hinkley and Assistant Administrator Kathy Carver were not liable.

But the judge left intact the claims against six jail employees — Sgt. Dane Winslow, Cpl. Bradley Woll, and Officers Robert Wood, Warren Heath III, Christopher Truppa, and Angela Escorsio.

According to testimony obtained through depositions taken of various jail officials and included in the court records, the following version of events occurred.

Lalli had been arrested on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2009, for assault and was taken to the Knox County Jail in Rockland. He also was charged with violating his probation by having been intoxicated.

Lalli, 22, had struggled with mental health and substance abuse problems for years, according to the court records. He had been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric addiction and recovery center at Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport two weeks before his arrest, according to the documents. Lalli and his then 3-year-old daughter lived with Penn.

On Monday morning Oct. 5, Lalli stated to a jail guard that if he could not get out of jail that day to see his daughter, it would be better if he was not alive at all. At his initial court appearance that afternoon on the new charges, Lalli was overheard by several people including an assistant district attorney that he had nothing to live for if he could not be released and see his daughter.

The judge at the hearing ordered Lalli held without bail. Lalli became upset and began crying. As he was being returned to the jail he was screaming hysterically and threatening suicide, according to the documents.

The jail van returned Lalli to the jail at about 2:35 p.m. At the jail, Lalli made several loud threats to kill himself, the documents indicate. Lalli was strip searched at 2:52 a.m. and was still crying. He was allowed to make a telephone call and an officer heard him say he would rather die if he could not have his daughter.

Assistant Jail Administrator Carver directed that Lalli be put on a suicide watch.

There were two cells at the jail for inmates at risk of suicide. One was occupied by another male on watch and the other was vacant but was adjacent to a cell occupied by a female. Jail officers decided they would move the female to another cell so Lalli could be in the suicide watch cell.

But at 3 p.m., he was placed in a regular cell and his bedding was not removed while jail officials attended to other matters, according to the court records.

An officer told Lalli that if he did not sit down and shut up he would be put in a “turtle suit,” the report stated. That suit is a restraint used for people who are at risk of killing themselves.

Lalli began screaming he was going to kill himself.

There was conflicting testimony on whether Lalli was checked at 3:15 p.m. but, according to the jail log, at 3:30 p.m. he was checked and found to be hanging by bed sheets strung from a privacy partition in the cell.

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