Judge dismisses federal claims tied to inmate's death

Rowell

A judge dismissed all federal claims filed on behalf of an inmate who died while being held during pretrial detention at Muskogee County/City Detention Facility.

State claims filed in conjunction with those that were dismissed this past week were remanded back to Muskogee County District Court, where they were filed initially. State claims seeking relief for Marvin A. Rowell’s in-custody death remain pending against the Muskogee County Board of Commissioners. 

Rowell, 42, of Muskogee, died Jan. 31, 2016, of multiple blunt impact injuries, according to the Oklahoma Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s report. The medical examiner determined manner of death to be accidental.

Zachary Rowell, administrator of deceased’s Estate, alleged the “sheriff’s officers, without provocation or justification, negligently injured Marvin Rowell when they pushed him ... or caused or allowed him to fall.”

Former Muskogee County Sheriff Charles Pearson told the Phoenix at the time of Rowell’s death the inmate died 16 minutes after arriving at the jail while being booked in on a complaint of public intoxication. Two jail employees reportedly were escorting Rowell from the booking area when Rowell was said to have fallen and hit his head on the concrete floor.

The medical examiner’s report shows Rowell “tested positive for ethanol, benzodiazepines and THC” after he was transported from the jail to the hospital by emergency medical personnel. A toxicology report included with the autopsy report revealed elevated blood levels of alcohol, diazepam and nordiazepam.

Lawyers representing Rowell’s estate, James A. McAuliff and Stanley Monroe of Tulsa, sought relief based on alleged deprivation of federal civil rights. They named three jail employees, the sheriff and the board of county commissioners as defendants, with claims against all but the latter dismissed. 

U.S. District Judge Ronald A. White wrote in an Oct. 22 order, granting motion for summary judgment filed by jail employee Dakota West, the claims stemmed from what he described as “a tragic death.” Despite the end result, White concluded “the court must follow the governing law as best it can.”

White found images captured by surveillance cameras inside the jail as “largely dispositive, despite being inaudible at various times.” The judge, describing segments of the video, states in the order that “West may have also given Marvin a push, but the camera angles and position of the bodies make this impossible to determine.”

The fall resulted with Rowell’s head striking a wall or the floor. Rowell was transported to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

“Marvin suffered severe injury, did not seem to present a severe security problem and was not actively resisting,” White states in the order. “Nevertheless, the court finds no constitutional violation simply because the force used appears to be de minimis.”  

In separate orders, White granted a motion for summary judgment filed by Muskogee County Sheriff Rob Frazier and two other jail employees. He noted the claims against the sheriff and jail supervisors “necessarily fail” because there was no constitutional violation.

Federal claims against the board of commissioners were dismissed for similar reasons due to the lack of a constitutional violation. Because only a state claim remained, White remanded the lawsuit to state court.

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