Within the confines of the Davis County Jail, between 2005 and 2017, 19 inmates have died as a result of injuries sustained in custody.
In the wake of her daughter’s death on Dec. 21, 2016, Cynthia Farnham-Stella of Reno, Nevada started piecing together the last hours of Heather Ashton Miller’s life. Miller had come to Utah three months earlier with a career prospect as an Information Technologist. However, she returned home to her mother in a box.
Miller, a 28-year-old mother of two, died as the result of a ruptured spleen that occurred while incarcerated in the Davis County Jail.
Weber County Detectives Jeff Lemberes and Garn Sever were called to investigate the incident. Their findings were later turned over to the Utah Attorney General’s Office. In a public statement issued by Attorney General Sean Reyes on April 28, 2017, all jail employees were cleared of any criminal conduct, and he would not consider charges.
Farnham-Stella’s attorneys, Tad Draper and Daniel M. Baczynski, filed a lawsuit in federal court against Davis County, Sheriff Todd Richardson and jail medical staff for the wrongful death of her daughter.
Because there were no protocols in place for the medical staff, Baczynski could only speculate as to why criminal charges would not be filed.
“I don’t think there is any excuse for why there are no protocols in place,” Baczynski said. As such, he is left to wonder who is supervising the medical staff and if they are being trained properly.
The events leading up to her daughter’s death were disturbing for Farnham-Stella. “They let my kid die,” she said.
The investigations conducted by multiple entities revealed conflicting statements and inconsistencies all the way around.
In a written report provided by Cpl. Johnson with the Davis County Jail, at 6 p.m. on Dec. 21, 2016, Deputy Lloyd called for medical to check on Miller after her cellmate alerted him that Miller had fallen from the top bunk.
Cpl. Johnson stated in the incident report that she responded to see if she could be of assistance, at which point Miller reportedly told Johnson her ribs on her left side were hurting and she could
According to Johnson, nurse Anderson arrived on the scene moments later. Johnson stated in her report that “Miller did not act as if it hurt” when Anderson touched her left side.
According to the lawsuit filed by Farnham-Stella’s attorneys on Jan. 3, 2018, Anderson failed to check Miller’s vitals after the fall and instead moved her to another cell, where she bled internally for hours.
A video-recorded interview with Farmington City Investigators Office was given to Farnham-Stella, in which Anderson tells investigators that he didn’t think to bring his medical bag with him when he was asked to respond to Miller’s cell.
Anderson admitted to investigators that he should have taken Miller’s vital signs, but rather opted to move her to a cell on the first floor where she would be alone and on a bottom bunk. In the recorded interview with Farmington City investigators, Anderson was asked to describe Miller’s physical condition when leaving her
“She sat up, put her shirt on, looked in the mirror at her hair,” Anderson said.
Johnson acknowledged that both she and Anderson had to assist Miller to the stairs by each supporting one arm. Before starting their descent down the stairs, it appeared that Miller was becoming dizzy and they encouraged her to
Anderson told investigators that when Miller said she could not walk, he left her at the top of the stairs to obtain a wheelchair. Although it is unclear how they planned to transport Miller from the upper tier to the lower tier in a wheelchair without a ramp, Anderson told investigators that he went to get the wheelchair in order to bring Miller down the stairs.
As Anderson left to retrieve the wheelchair from the medical unit, Johnson asked Miller to lower herself down the stairs.
“He had the wheelchair ready when we got to the last step,” Johnson said.
James Ondricek, the supervising nurse of the medical unit, said not being able to walk without assistance is by itself an indication that she should have been sent
Anderson later admitted bias against Miller in his deposition, saying he thought she was in withdrawal and it would not have made a difference if he had taken her to medical because he would not have paid her any attention.
Although the initial incident involving Miller’s fall from the top bunk occurred at approximately 6 p.m., Miller had apparently gone unnoticed until 8:30 p.m., when Deputy Lloyd took toilet paper to her cell.
Lloyd reported arriving at her cell to notice her lying on the floor in nothing but her bra with blood on her chin.
Deputy Lucius, however, wrote in his report that he could not see her face as she was lying with her head up against the door. Sgt. Wall responded to assist with Miller, as she was nearly naked and found unresponsive.
“Her skin was grey, cold to the touch and sweating profusely,” Deputy Lloyd wrote.
According to a statement provided by the attorney general’s office, Anderson said Miller “looked dead” when she arrived to medical in a wheelchair
At this time, deputies assumed she had experienced a seizure. However, the autopsy report showed she suffered from decerebrate posture – a type of posturing associated with severe damage to the brain.
Signs indicative of Decerebrate Posture are abnormal body posture involving rigidity of the muscles in which the arms and legs are stretched out, toes pointing downward and head and neck arched backward.
In the recorded 911 call to Farmington Fire and Rescue, Sgt. Wall was asked by dispatch if the inmate’s condition is the result of a fall. Sgt. Wall responded to the inquiry, “She, uh, no, no.”
Deputy Paramedic Nicholas Pollock felt it was improper not to convey more of an urgency and found fault with the jail staff for not allowing Miller to be brought up for an expedited departure.
With the exception of the time it took Anderson and Johnson to move Miller to a different cell, there are more than two hours unaccounted for in all reports provided by the Davis County Sheriff’s Office.
Pollock voiced his concerns with his supervisor over the situation. “There were a lot of different variables that didn’t add up,” Pollock said.
Chase Harvey, the first paramedic to administer aid to Miller, told investigators that he was concerned as soon as he walked in and saw Miller. Harvey said she wasn’t moving, her pupils were fixed, dilated and not responding to light, “a
According to Harvey, Miller was no longer breathing by the time they reached the ambulance, at which point he had to stabilize her airway.
In route to the hospital, Miller went into cardiac arrest, requiring Pollock and Harvey to perform resuscitation efforts. Miller was later pronounced dead at McKay-Dee Hospital.
According to expert witnesses provided by both the plaintiff and defendant, Anderson did not follow minimum nursing standards.
“I don’t think we can give him a pass on that,” Baczynski said.
A partial summary hearing is set for May 7, at which point Draper and Baczynski will show that Anderson exhibited deliberate indifference.
Deliberate indifference is the conscious or reckless disregard of the consequences of one’s acts or omissions, and is the high standard used to determine if a professional has violated an inmate’s civil rights.
American Civil Liberties Union discussed the possibility of requesting a special investigation by the Department of Justice for violating civil rights, however, they decided it was not a prudent investment of their resources at this time.
Stella started her investigative journey to get justice for her daughter, but she has since made it a mission to change policy regarding medical care for all inmates in the state with the highest in-custody deaths in the nation.
“My daughter will not die in vain,”
Stella and her attorneys are hopeful for a long-term change in medical protocols and holding the medical staff accountable to them.
If anything comes of this case, that’s where it will be, Baczynski said.