Federal Investigation Into Death of Inmate at Bellevue; Jonathan Chasan Serves As Family's Lawyer
FRIDAY, OCTOBER 29, 2010
Jonathan Chasan

In an article in The New York Times on October 28, Jonathan Chasan, Supervising Lawyer in the Prisoners' Rights Project, is quoted about the death of mentally disturbed man in a holding cell at Bellevue Hospital. Federal officials have opened a criminal investigtion of the death of the man in 2007 after a confrontation with correction officers.

Chasan, one of the lawyers for the family of the inmate, Patrick Miller, told the Times that “It is profoundly troubling that on this very ward a patient was beaten to death.” Chasan explained that a class action lawsuit settled two decades ago had imposed measures intended to reduce the likelihood of correction officers beating prisoners in Bellevue’s prison ward.

Karen Dubin-McKnight, MICA Mitigation Specialist in the Queens Criminal Office, had met Mr. Miller about 10 years ago. She had met with him in Bellevue shortly before his death. Read full New York Times story


October 28, 2010
The New York Times
F.B.I. Examining Prison Ward Death
By Benjamin Weiser

Federal prosecutors and the F.B.I. have opened a criminal investigation into the death of a mentally disturbed man whose bruised body was found in a holding cell in the prison ward at Bellevue Hospital Center after a struggle with correction officers.

The inmate, Patrick Miller, had punched one officer and was subdued by a group of officers, according to an internal memorandum by the New York Department of Investigation. He was then handcuffed behind his back and taken away.

That much of the 2007 confrontation was captured on video, the memo noted. A short time later, Mr. Miller was found in a holding cell without a pulse, and efforts to revive him failed. Lawyers for his mother, who has sued the city, contend he was beaten by officers outside the camera’s range.

Among the agencies that have already investigated the death are the Manhattan district attorney’s office, the city medical examiner, the city Department of Investigation and the Police Department.

No charges were ever brought, documents show.

The mother’s lawyers said that they approached the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan, and provided their own findings, including a report by an expert they hired, Dr. Charles V. Wetli, a former Suffolk County medical examiner, who concluded Mr. Miller’s death was a homicide.

Federal and city officials declined to comment on the new investigation, which is cited in an Oct. 25 letter that city lawyers sent to the federal judge who is overseeing the suit by the man’s mother, Billie Ann Miller.

Federal investigators are preparing to interview more than two dozen witnesses, apparently including correction officers, the letter said.

One of Ms. Miller’s lawyers, Jonathan S. Chasan of the Legal Aid Society’s prisoners’ rights project, said a class action lawsuit settled two decades ago had imposed measures intended to reduce the likelihood of correction officers beating prisoners in Bellevue’s prison ward.

“It is profoundly troubling,” he said, “that on this very ward a patient was beaten to death.”

Jonathan S. Abady, another of Ms. Miller’s lawyers, said: “Historically, the federal government has intervened in situations where local law enforcement has failed to adequately protect victims of civil rights violations. And this for us was a screaming example of local failure.”

It is unusual but not unheard of for the federal government to investigate and even prosecute for deprivation of civil rights after local authorities decide against filing charges or after an acquittal.

In 1998, the same federal prosecutor’s office won the conviction of a former city police officer, Francis X. Livoti, for violating the rights of Anthony Baez, who died after a confrontation with the police. Mr. Livoti had been acquitted earlier of state charges.

To win a federal conviction, prosecutors must show that there was willful use of excessive force by law enforcement officials, legal experts said.

Mr. Miller, who was in his early 30s, came to New York from South Carolina and had drifted in and out of homelessness, according to a social worker now with the Legal Aid Society who first met him about a decade ago.

The social worker, Karen Dubin-McKnight, recalled accompanying Mr. Miller to benefits offices and meeting him in jail and at Bellevue shortly before his death.

“He was very patient and very quiet,” she said. “He just was easy company to be around.”

Bellevue records for May 17, 2007, the day Mr. Miller died, show he was “in good behavioral control, he responded to direction, and he was respectful of both staff and patients,” the lawsuit said. That day at 5:05 p.m., according to the Department of Investigation memo summarizing its inquiry, Mr. Miller attacked a correction officer “without provocation by punching him to the neck and facial area.”

As the officer defended himself, four others arrived and helped to subdue Mr. Kelly “by bringing him to the floor,” the memo said.

The episode, which lasted about three minutes, was captured on a digital recorder installed on the ward, the memo said. But what happened in the holding cell was not caught on camera.

There, Mr. Miller was found unresponsive and without a pulse, and was pronounced dead at 6:02 p.m., the memo said.

His mother, Ms. Miller, said by phone that “no one understands how it feels as a mother to have someone call” and learn that her son has died “in an institution where there’s supposed to be protection and help.”

An autopsy performed by the medical examiner’s office found evidence of “multiple blunt trauma” on Mr. Miller’s upper body, head and neck. It attributed his death to probable cardiac arrhythmia following a struggle and said the manner of death was undetermined.