No Bias in Inmate’s Death, Court RulesApril 17, 2017 |
by Matt Volz, Associated Press
HELENA, Mont. — The Montana Supreme Court has cleared Hill and Blaine county officials of discrimination in the slow, painful death of a teenager suffering from alcohol withdrawal symptoms while in jail for more than four days.
The court on Tuesday overturned one district judge’s ruling and upheld another’s that the discrimination claim filed with Montana Human Rights Bureau over the death of 18-year-old Allen Longsoldier Jr., also known as A.J., was without merit.
“We acknowledge the heartbreaking truth that Allen Longsoldier, Jr. — a gifted young man — suffered horrendously while dying slowly from alcohol withdrawal syndrome,” Justice Beth Baker wrote in the 5-0 decision. “On this record, however, the Montana Human Rights Act is not a proper legal remedy for his suffering.”
Longsoldier, a basketball standout from the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, was arrested in November 2009 after his probation officer couldn’t contact him. Over the next three days in the Hill County Detention Center jail, Longsoldier didn’t sleep and couldn’t keep down water. His jailers recognized that he was experiencing alcohol withdrawal, Baker wrote.
“Officers observed Longsoldier hallucinating, talking to himself, gagging, dry heaving, sweating and pleading for help,” the court ruling said.
The officers brought him to Northern Montana Hospital in Havre, where a doctor gave him prescriptions for anxiety medication that were never filled. After he was brought back to jail and his condition worsened, a dispatcher called the hospital but was told by a nurse that Longsoldier was “playing them” and “he just doesn’t like being there.”
Longsoldier died of delirium tremens, or the DTs, on Nov. 23, 2009, more than four days after he was arrested.
Longsoldier’s estate, represented by his friend Summer Stricker, filed a human rights complaint that Longsoldier’s prescription was not filled and he died because the officers discriminated against him for being a Native American and because of his disability, alcoholism.
The hospital agreed to a settlement, leaving only the counties to contest the discrimination claim.
A hearing officer concluded there was no discrimination, but the full Montana Human Rights Commission overturned that ruling — though it found the discrimination was only against Longsoldier’s disability and not as a Native American. The commission awarded Longsoldier’s estate $1.35 million.
Blaine and Hill counties took the case to court, where District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock overturned the commission’s ruling and reinstated the hearing officer’s conclusions.
Sherlock later retired and District Judge James Reynolds took over the case. Reynolds overturned Sherlock’s order and sent the case back to the Montana Human Rights Commission for further proceedings.
The Supreme Court order found there was enough evidence to support the hearings officer’s conclusions that there was no discrimination. The fact that Longsoldier was not given his prescribed medicine could be a negligence claim, but there was no evidence of discrimination presented, the court ruled.
The court ruled to reinstate Sherlock’s order.
A phone number listed for Stricker was disconnected and she did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.