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Darrell Havens: Paralyzed inmate denied clemency, surgery

His doctors have told Darrell Havens that surgery could help relieve his deteriorating condition, but the wheelchair-bound inmate's keepers in the Colorado Department of Corrections aren't exactly eager to okay the operation -- or to release him to seek care on his own. Havens, who was left a quadriplegic by a police shooting in 2007, recently had a clemency application denied by DOC executive director Tom Clements.

State inmates must have served at least a third of the sentence to be eligible for a commutation by the governor. Havens has served only four years of a twenty-year sentence for car theft and attempted assault, but he'd applied for a waiver of the usual criteria because of what's known in the bureaucracy as "catastrophic medical problems." But the application needed approval from Clements before moving on to the governor's desk, and last month Clements turned him down.

"I can find no reason to grant a waiver to the criteria for executive clemency at this time," Clements wrote in a letter to Havens. "I would encourage you to continue with your current positive institutional behavior."

In 2007, the nineteen-year-old Havens was the target of a sting operation by an auto theft task force led by detectives from the Arvada Police Department. Driving a stolen Audi, he was boxed in by undercover police vehicles in a Target parking lot. As recounted in my 2010 feature "Wheel Man," Havens was unarmed and his vehicle was pinned against other cars. But a detective who fired nine rounds into his car told investigators that the Audi was trying to break free and could have run him over if he hadn't acted to defend himself.

Havens has disputed police accounts of the shooting. An affidavit filed by Ellis Armistead, a former Lakewood police officer, contends that the police statements are inconsistent and that the situation didn't justify deadly force.

The shooting left Havens with almost no mobility -- he has limited movement in one arm, enough to operate a motorized chair -- and ongoing health problems. One of the most disabled prisoners in the entire system, his care is estimated to cost upwards of $200,000 a year. With the support of DOC officials, he'd sought and had been granted a medical parole in 2010, but it was abruptly canceled after Arvada police chief Don Wick objected to his release. The Arvada city attorney's office later offered to drop its opposition to his parole if Havens would withdraw a civil lawsuit against the detective who shot him; Havens attorney William Muhr called the proposition "completely improper."

Depositions are now underway in the lawsuit, but a trial date has not been set. Meanwhile, the state of Havens's health continues to worsen. After the 2011 closure of Fort Lyon, DOC's prison for inmates with special medical needs, he was transferred to an infirmary at the Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center. Havens claims his care is now largely in the hands of inmate orderlies rather than doctors or nurses. Medical records indicate that he's battled recurrent infections, and one provider reported his prognosis as poor "given the likelihood of future serious infections."

Doctors at Denver Health Medical Center have urged surgery to deal with pain and degeneration associated with Havens's abnormal spinal curvature, a condition known as scoliosis, as well as a wrist fusion procedure. But DOC administrators have declined to approve the surgery.

"My back is getting worse, with four fractured vertebrae, and immediate surgery is the only answer," Havens wrote in a recent letter to Westword.

His sister Chrystal, who visits Havens often, says the DOC's minimalist approach to treating him is costing much more in the long run. "The last two weeks, he was taken to the hospital four different times for emergency care," she says. Because of his chronic infections and compromised immune system, she was told last week that she would need to wear a mask and gown to visit him.

After Clements rejected his clemency application, Havens filed a notice of intent to sue the state over his medical care. Among other complaints, the document claims that neglectful night-shift attendants have left him to lie in urine and feces for hours at a time: "I have brought all these issues up through chains of commands, but it has not done anything, in fact they just run and ignore all my letters, kites, phone calls from families.... These are all acts of cruel and unusual punishment, medical malpractice, as well as medical neglect and failure to properly train by the Department of Corrections."

More from our Follow That Story archive circa 2010: "Darrell Havens: Car thief paralyzed by Arvada police shooting in standoff over parole deal."