CO - Denver Jail Fail: $4.6 Million to Family of Mentally Ill Inmate

Denver Post

The family of a mentally ill man killed in 2015 in Denver’s downtown jail will receive $4.6 million. The settlement was announced on November 1, 2017.

CO - Denver Jail Fail: $4.6 Million to Family of Mentally Ill Inmate

The settlement also addresses and changes the way the Denver Police Department trains staff to deal with Colorado’s mentally ill inmates. 

Agitated and Hearing Voices

Michael Lee Marshall, 50, had suffered psychotic episodes for a long time in which he heard the voices of Elvis Presley and others. Two years earlier, on November 7, 2015, Marshall was arrested by Denver police on charges of trespassing and disturbing the peace.

The incident occurred at a Denver, Colorado motel, where Marshall, then homeless, became agitated and claimed he was looking for his Bible. Before his arrest, Marshall reportedly refused to take his schizophrenia medication and called 911 six times over the previous two days. During those calls, he was allegedly “ranting” and “rambling.”

Marshall’s jail bond was just $100, but before his family or an attorney were notified, he was comatose in a hospital, where he died nine days later after life support was removed. What happened?

An Escalating Situation

In a jailhouse video a few days after his arrest, Marshall is seen in a pod, pacing while holding a blanket. He was then placed by deputies in a secure walkway. However, his pacing continued, and he then knocked over a cart. Ordered to remain seated, Marshall refused, and the situation got very bad, very fast.

A total of six deputies eventually got atop Marshall to subdue him. Marshall was a relatively small man, standing just 5’4” and weighing only 112 pounds.

During this pileup – in which he did not appear to struggle -  Marshall vomited and then proceeded to choke and suffocate on the vomitus. Marshall lost consciousness before he was taken to the hospital.

The video shows deputies and emergency personnel crowded around Marshall’s inert body.

Mental Health Providers

As part of the settlement, the city of Denver agreed to add two mental health providers to its jail staff and allow 24-hour a day access to mental health coverage for inmates. All deputies will receive mental health training.

Like many cities, Colorado’s Denver deals with a large percentage of mentally ill inmates.

At any given time, about 2,000 inmates are within the city’s two jails. Of that number, approximately 25 percent, or 500 inmates, are either receiving mental health treatment or psychotropic medication.

Deputies must inform mental health providers immediately if they suspect an inmate is experiencing a mental health crisis. The Marshall family attorney told the Associated Press,

"If there would have been this type of mental health expertise at the jail the night that Michael Marshall was, he very well could be alive today. The number of lives this measure alone could save in the future is uncountable. But it's certain to make an impact."

In an address in front of the Van Cise-Simonet Detention Center, the lawyer said the Marshall family was “especially grateful that Michael's legacy will lead to such a vast improvement in how jails are run and how mentally ill people will be treated by the city."

Protocol Changes

The Marshall settlement, which the family refers to as the “Michael Marshall Rights Plan,” also includes protocol changes for communication between jail staff, mentally ill inmates, and their families.

The agreement states a plan to develop a protocol for notifying family members if an inmate is taken to the hospital for any reason. The city must notify the Marshall family and the law firm representing them regarding updates to the settlement agreement.

Deputies Disciplined

The watch commander and three sheriff’s deputies were suspended between 10 and 16 days without pay as a result of Marshall’s death, which his family and their attorneys found insufficient.

Prosecutors declined to file criminal charges against the jail personnel, stating the staff members were not trying to hurt Marshall.

A total of seven staff members could have faced disciplinary action, but not only were several members never charged, two of those who were suspended later had their suspensions overturned.

A January, 2016 letter from Denver District Attorney Mitchell Morrissey states,

To those calling for criminal charges in order to effect a change regarding use of force tactics or policies, I want to emphasize that criminal charges are appropriately used only to respond to criminal acts that can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Absent that certainty of proof, criminal charges are not appropriate and are not justice.”

While those responsible were not charged criminally, the Marshall settlement did change the Denver police department policies.