Yesterday, we told you about an $11 million verdict for Ken McGill, who suffered a stroke while in Jefferson County Detention Center. But the McGill incident isn't the only jail-related tragedy to spur a multi-million dollar settlement this week. Colorado's Department of Corrections has reportedly agreed to pay $3 million over the death of Christopher Lopez, whose family filed a lawsuit accusing DOC personnel of allowing the mentally ill inmate to die as they watched, joked and laughed.
The suit is included below in its entirety. But here's the dramatic introduction, as featured in our previous coverage:
On March 17, 2013, in full view of most of the Defendants, a shackled and stripped Christopher Lopez died alone and ignored, on the cold concrete floor of a cell at the San Carlos Correctional Facility. His death could have been easily prevented by most of the defendants had any one of them simply picked up a phone and called for medical help. Instead, the Defendants, all employees of the Colorado Department of Corrections, ultimately made what could pass as a documentary film on how to ignore the obvious and serious medical needs of a dying prisoner for hours until the very last breath of life leaves his body.
In an interview this past June, attorney David Lane, who represented the Lopez family in the lawsuit, told us he felt authorities would have a difficult time refuting the facts as presented in the complaint, given that "the whole thing is on high-quality, made-for-TV video," which he described prior to the release of a 47-minute compilation of the footage also seen here. Lane described the source material like so: "The first video shows Christopher Lopez lying face down on the floor of his cell, naked from the waist up, and the staff is yelling in the cuff slot" -- the slot in the cell door through which prisoners can extend their hands in order to be handcuffed. "They're saying, 'Come to the slot and cuff up or we're not going to help you with your medical issue.' But you can see Lopez is virtually unconscious. He's trying to lift his head but he's not strong enough to do it.
"Then they gear up the force team" -- personnel assigned to forcibly extract an inmate from his cell -- "and go in. But first, they talk about pepper-spraying him because he's not complying with their demands, even though some low-level guard says he has a medical issue. The only reason they don't pepper-spray him is because they're short-staffed.
"Their reports about this are all part of the cover up," Lane contended. "They say, 'He disobeyed our order' to make it seem like he was obstreperous when he was actually almost unconscious."
Once inside the cell, Lane continued, staffers "put Lopez in a restraint chair with a belly chain and his wrists shackled to the belly chain, and put a spit hood over him even though he wasn't doing anything.
"If he was disobeying their orders, it was because he was 95 percent dead at this point."
Continue for more about the Christopher Lopez settlement, including more photos, a document and a video that may disturb some readers. "Then they wheel him away," Lane allowed, "and in this video, you see him alone in a cell in a restraint chair having a grand mal seizure. It's really difficult to watch. But the guards are standing around talking about Walmart and what they're going to do on Saturday night. They go on and on and on and on.
"After a while, they take him out of the restraint chair, but he's still in full restraint, wearing only his boxer shorts, as he lies on the cold, concrete floor with his head under a toilet. From time to time, you can hear them say, 'Lopez? Ready to cooperate with us, Lopez?' And all you can hear is him breathing. If you saw a guy lying on a sidewalk in this condition, the first thing you'd do is call 911 -- but they do nothing." At one point during the course of events, a nurse can be seen entering -- but Lane said her mission wasn't to render emergency aid. "She says, 'It's time for your psych meds.' He doesn't respond to that, because he's near death. So they say, 'Fine,' and give him a forcible injection into his butt of his psych meds."
Lopez doesn't respond, Lane pointed out -- "and over the course of the next hour," he says, "you can literally see Christopher Lopez take his last breath on earth."
After that, Lane said, more time passed. "Twenty minutes later, some of the guards realize, 'Hey, I wonder if this guy's breathing. Was he breathing before?' And my response to that is, he was breathing for almost his entire life, but he's not breathing now, because he's dead. And they start doing CPR on a dead man. Then, finally, the EMTs arrive, and their first order is to turn off the video. But it doesn't matter. He's long since dead."
An autopsy eventually determined that Lopez "died of severe hyponatremia, a condition that occurs when the level of sodium in a person's blood is abnormally low," the suit notes. And according to Lane, one cause of sodium deficiency is psychotropic medication of the type Lopez was on -- and the very stuff with which he was injected shortly before his death. Lane didn't claim this final shot killed him -- "I'm not a doctor," he stresses -- but he contended that "all it would have taken to cure him was to give him some sodium and monitor his blood. But they couldn't be bothered."
Continue for more about the Christopher Lopez settlement, including more photos, a document and a video that may disturb some readers. These circumstances were so extreme that the Department of Corrections had previously acknowledged things went wrong. Lane referred to a DOC statement "in which they extend sincere condolences to the family, talk about regretting that the incident occurred and say they've fired people as a result of this, disciplined other people and instituted training to make sure it doesn't happen again, blah blah blah."
In his view, though, this admission was wholly inadequate.
"Just because you're sorry you killed somebody doesn't mean it's okay and there are no consequences for your actions," he said. "Where was their apology before we filed suit? The inspector general filed a report with the DOC essentially saying this has all the earmarks of criminally negligent homicide -- so why didn't anybody at the DOC refer this to the district attorney for prosecution? Why did they sweep it under the rug? Why didn't they reach out to the family and explain how he died? Whenever his mother contacted the DOC, no one would give her any information. It was only when my office got involved that they were forced to release documents that shed light on exactly what happened.
"The DOC may be sorry, but I'm going to make them sorrier."
That's one way of interpreting the $3 million settlement, confirmed by 7News. But the money won't erase the memory of Lopez's final hours, as captured in the compilation video. One key sequence takes place around the 40:45 minute mark, when Lopez is lying shackled and semi-conscious on concrete flooring near a toilet.
In the sequence, a female supervisor can be heard arriving and greeting correctional officers on duty.
"What's he doing now?" she asks
"Smells like he peed all over the place," a man replies.
A few seconds later, the supervisor introduces herself to Lopez and asks, "What are you doing? What are you doing? Why are you doing this? I can see you breathing. What's wrong? Open your eyes."
Lopez manages to perform this last task, but barely -- and that seems to satisfy those watching him. The conversation continues like so:
"Is he still on the floor?"
"He likes it on the floor."
"I like him on the floor."
"Yeah, he likes it alright when he's on the floor."
This line prompts a laugh, after which the supervisor remarks, "Isn't that terrible?"
That's one way of putting it. Here's the video, followed by the original lawsuit.
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.
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