Death In The Devil's Chair: Florida Man's Pepper Spray Death Raises Questions About Jail Abuse

A Death In The Devil's Chair

When he left his home in Ohio to visit his brother in Fort Myers, Fla. in March 2009, Nick Christie was already breaking down, physically and mentally. His wife Joyce was concerned about his well-being. Rightly so. By the end of the month, the grandfather of two, whose only prior run-in with the law was a DUI in the 1980s, would be strapped to a restraining chair in the Lee County, Fla. jail, coated with a thick layer of pepper spray, smothered in a "spit hood," then finally taken to a Florida hospital where, two days later, he would die.

Christie, 62, a retired boilermaker, suffered from heart disease as well as emphysema, the latter the likely result of his former smoking habit and years of exposure to asbestos. A bout with diverticulitis had forced him to cancel a fishing trip the year before, and he slipped into a depression after he was hospitalized for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a condition that further constricted his breathing.

Christie had been taking medication for his depression, but the doctor who was treating him had recently moved. That left no one to manage Christie's spiraling emotional state, and no one to control the possible side effects of his medication. Christie's wife worried about his trip to Florida, to the point where she contacted police in Lee County herself to ask that they keep an eye out for her husband. At her request, a captain from the Girard, Ohio police department also called Lee County officials and asked them to take Christie to a hospital if they found him.

Christie was first arrested on March 25, for public intoxication. Though there's evidence Christie had been drinking, he was also beginning his mental deterioration, and may have merely been disoriented. One fast-food worker he interacted with that night said she thought he was suffering from Alzheimer's. Though confused (he couldn't remember his wife's or brother's phone number), Christie did inform the jail attendants of his various medical conditions, and gave them a list of the medications he was taking. He was released the next day.

Christie was then arrested again on March 27, this time for misdemeanor trespassing. Nicholas DiCello, whose Cleveland firm Spangenberg Shibley & Liber has filed a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Joyce and Christie's estate, says the second arrest was for a minor offense. "It was for trespassing at the hotel where was staying," DiCello says. "He was having another mental episode. He was bewildered, acting crazy, and so the hotel got fed up and asked him to leave. When he didn't go, they called the police."

According to DiCello, the jail staff and the staff for Prison Health Services, the private company contracted to provide medical service to the jail, ordered no advanced physical or mental health screening for Christie before he was jailed, despite the long list of medical conditions already in his file from his prior arrest. There is also no indication that anyone was made aware of Joyce Christie's notification of Lee County officials, in which she informed them about her husband's conditions. According to the lawsuit, after the second arrest, Lee County deputies locked Christie's medications in his truck. During his 43 hours in custody, he was never given medication.

Christie was uncooperative and nonsensical from the time he was arrested, but at some point after his incarceration, he became combative. Lee County deputies responded by either directly spraying him or fogging his cell with pepper spray at least 10 times. (According to police, Christie was sprayed eight times. A cell mate was sprayed two other times, which may have affected Christie.) He was never allowed to "decontaminate" -- to wash the spray off. Other inmates in the jail, who weren't targeted with the spray, told the Fort Myers News-Press the blasts were so strong that the secondary effects caused them to gag.

The deputies then put Christie into a restraining chair, a controversial device that binds inmates at both wrists, both ankles, and across the chest. In depositions, the other inmates, along with a deputy trainee named Monshay Gibbs, testified that Christie was sprayed at least two more times after he had been strapped to the chair. He was also stripped naked, and outfitted with a "spit mask," a hood designed to prevent inmates from spitting on jail personnel. In Christie's case, the mask kept the pepper spray in close proximity to his nose and mouth, ensuring he would continue to inhale it for the full six hours he was in the restraint chair.

According to Gibbs' testimony, Christie pleaded with the deputies, telling them he had a heart condition and numerous other medical problems, and that the spit mask made it difficult for him to breathe. Other inmates have confirmed Gibbs' account, adding that Christie began to turn purple.

When Joyce Christie heard of her husband's second arrest, she flew down to Florida to find him. "She was actually relieved to hear he had been arrested," DiCello says. "She thought they had responded to her pleas for help, that they would take him to a hospital to be treated." She eventually made her way to the Lee County jail. Joyce Christie would later learn that at one point in the night, when she was pleading with police to take her husband to the hospital, at the same time and in the same building he was being tortured to death in the restraint chair.

"She left frustrated," DiCello says. "They weren't listening to her. She didn't know what to do."

In the early afternoon of March 29, Nick Christie went into respiratory distress. He was taken to the Gulf Coast Medical Center in Fort Myers. Joyce Christie told journalist Jane Akre that according to hospital staff, her husband was so covered in pepper spray that doctors had to repeatedly change their gloves as they became contaminated. Christie would suffer multiple heart attacks over the next two days before he was finally declared brain dead and his life support was removed on March 31. Two days after Christie had been transported out of the jail, Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Robert Pfalzgraf noted in his autopsy report that Christie still had brown-orange liquid pepper spray all over his body.

Pfalzgraf determined that Christie's heart gave out due to stress from his exposure to pepper spray. He ruled the death a homicide.

The Devil's Chair

"I look at this story, and all I can say is, what in the world were they thinking?" says David Klinger, a former police officer who now teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Klinger specializes in the use of force. "As a general rule, you don't use pepper spray on someone who is restrained. There might be some limited circumstances where, say, you have a suspect in handcuffs who is banging his head against the window of a patrol car. You might give him a quick burst of pepper spray. But never, never someone who is secured in a restraint chair. It just makes no sense at all."

The Lee County deputies appear to have violated accepted use of force guidelines a number of different ways, including the length of time they kept Christie strapped to the chair, pepper spraying him after he had been restrained (as well as their failure to clean the pepper spray off of him), their failure to properly evaluate him for mental and physical health problems, and their failure to allow him to take his medication.

While the Florida Sheriff's Association told HuffPost that it has no guidelines on the use of restraint chairs, there seems to be a strong consensus that the use of pepper spray, stun guns, or other compliance tools after a suspect has been restrained is at minimum excessive force, and possibly a crime.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has found that pepper spraying suspects suffering mental illness is a violation of their constitutional rights, and several federal appeals courts have ruled that spraying someone who is already restrained is an excessive use of force. The state of Vermont forbids the use of restraint chairs for punishment, and requires approval from a medical professional and a mental health professional before a chair can be used. In the event that an inmate poses an immediate risk, a mental health professional is to be contacted immediately after the inmate is strapped in. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice forbids the use of restraint chairs and pepper spray on incarcerated minors entirely.

The Florida State Prison System doesn't use restraint chairs, either. A spokeswoman told the Orlando Sentinel in 2006 that the state's Department of Corrections has determined the chairs are a safety risk, and inappropriate for prisoners with mental illness. The problem, some experts say, is that inmates with mental illness are particularly prone to "excited delirium," an escalating set of respiratory and cardiovascular symptoms that can lead to death. (Though the diagnosis is still controversial.)

Steve Yerger has been training law enforcement agencies on the use of force for 20 years, and gives what he says is the only course on restraint chairs in the country. Yerger says the complete restriction of movement to which the chair subjects inmates can trigger physiological effects -- both respiratory and circulatory -- and that the problem can be exacerbated in patients with mental health problems. "They can just go through the roof, and then they crash. You need to make sure you have constant monitoring, and that you always have medical professionals close by," Yerger says.

But inmates with mental illness are also more likely to present a threat to themselves or others, which means they're more likely to need restraint. A 2009 report by the Maryland Frederick News-Post, for example, found that in the previous year, 64 percent of inmates put in a restraint chair by the Frederick County Sheriff's Department had mental health problems.

While there's no universal policy on how long an inmate can safely be left in a restraint chair, the Oklahoma Department of Corrections limits it to two hours. Texas limits the time to five hours in any 24-hour period. Montana limits restraint to four hours. Iowa law also limits the time to four hours (though Iowa jails that exceed that limit appear to suffer little more than some public criticism.) Utah banned restraint chairs entirely after inmate Michael Valent died of blood clots -- the result of being strapped to a chair for 16 hours. Though in Utah too, several counties continued to use the chair after the ban.

There have been a number of deaths over the years at least in part attributed to what critics call "the devil's chair" or the "torture chair." In a 2000 article for The Progressive Anne-Marie Cusac documented 11 deaths, including several inmates with mental illness as well as cases in which inmates were pepper sprayed after they had been restrained. Cusac notes that in the 1999 case of James Arthur Livingston, who died after being strapped to a restraint chair in Tarrant County, Texas, the first deputy who attempted to give Livingston CPR wrote in his report, "I then removed myself from the area and walked into the sally port, where I threw up from inhaling pepper gas residue from inmate Livingston."

In 2004, the Dayton City Paper wrote about three restraint chair-related deaths in Dayton County, Ohio, alone.

Restraint chair-related lawsuits alleging patterns of abuse have proliferated across the country, including in Iowa, Georgia (PDF), Colorado, Texas, California, New Jersey and Maricopa County, Arizona, where the chairs were finally replaced in 2006 after three deaths and several million dollars paid out in settlements.

Florida has also had its share of restraint chair problems. Four of the 11 deaths Cusac chronicles in her 2000 article took place in Florida jails. In 2007, Lake County paid out a $500,000 settlement to the family of a woman who suffocated in a restraint chair, though the settlement didn't bar the county from using the chair in the future. The state has also been the scene of a years-long, high-profile controversy following the use of a restraint chair on the daughter of the Florida State Attorney in 2005.

Like Klinger, the former police officer, Yerger says the use of pepper spray in conjunction with the chair was particularly over the line. "This is a tool for restraint, and there's no reason to pepper spray someone once they're restrained. That's punishment, and it's a form of torture. At minimum, that sort of thing should cost someone his job. And it should probably lead to criminal charges."

But the pepper spray-restraint chair combination has happened in other jurisdictions as well. Last year, a Harrison County, Indiana, officer was accused of putting pepper spray in a hood, then putting it over the head of an inmate already nude and bound to a restraining chair. In the following months, more accusations came out against the department, many again involving abuse of the restraining chair. In 2006, deputies in another Harrison County -- this one in Mississippi -- emptied an entire can of pepper spray into a hood that they then placed over the head of Jesse Lee Williams, while he was confined to a restraint chair. Williams, who was also severely beaten, later died of kidney failure.

Yerger says the other problem in Lee County is that once Christie had been securely restrained, he needed medical treatment. While the officers in Lee County were clearly out of line, Yerger says, the problem in many other cases is more a lack of training.

"Several years ago, I was researching the restraint chair for a case where I was going to be an expert witness. I found that all of these police departments across the country were using the chairs, but none of them were getting any training," Yerger says. "There's no training on the proper way to put someone into the chair, but more importantly, you have these people who have mental problems, or who are on alcohol or drugs. These are medical problems, that require medical attention. This isn't criminal behavior. But that's sometimes how it's treated."

This collection of deaths, injuries and reports of abuse involving restraint chairs has moved both Amnesty International and the United Nations Committee Against torture to call for a ban on the devices.

In her 2000 article, Cusac points to a deposition of Dan Corcoran, president of AEDEC International Inc., the Beaverton, Oregon, company which manufactures the Prostraint Violent Prisoner Chair. Corcoran acknowledges that the only testing he did of the chair before marketing it was to put some friends in it. He says the chair had never been tested in any scientific way for its effect on someone impaired by drugs, alcohol or mental illness (in fact, he specifically recommends the chair for the first two), or for other hazards like deep vein thrombosis, the sometimes-fatal blood clotting that can occur after remaining in the same position for more than a few hours.

But both Yerger and Klinger say calls for banning the chair are misplaced. They say restraint is sometimes critical when a prisoner poses a threat to himself or others, and there's nothing particularly sinister about the restraint chair. "Once you take care of the immediate threat -- and you really do need to take care of that -- then you treat the case like it needs to be treated. That means if it's someone having a mental crisis, you get them to a hospital," Yerger says.

"Any new device or piece of technology can be helpful, or it can be abused, whether it's a restraint chair, a Taser, or baton," says Klinger. "If you have officers who are willing to punish and abuse a restrained prisoner, it's going to happen whether he's in a restraint chair, handcuffs, or a restraint bed or gurney. The device isn't the problem. It's the officers."

"It's really about culture," says Yerger. "You need to instill a distinct code, especially in a correctional facility, that emphasizes control over punishment."

Yerger cites Philip Zimbardo's famous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment which, though it later came under criticism, showed how quickly students randomly chosen to be guards in a hypothetical prison resorted to abusing students randomly chosen to be prisoners. "It's a constant thing. It has to be hammered home, over and over."

In Christie's case, that puts the bulk of the blame on the deputies and Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott, not on the restraint chair.

No Accountability

When Joyce Christie finally got a phone call in March 2009 letting her know that her husband had been taken to the hospital, the call was anonymous, and the caller didn't say what hospital. She used caller I.D. to determine the call had come from the Gulf Coast Medical Center. When she arrived, the police wouldn't let her see her husband. Fortunately, someone in the waiting room overheard her conversation and gave her the card for a bail bondsman. She left to get the bond, and only after posting bond was she allowed to see him. By then, Nick Christie was close to death. As a deputy at the hospital got up to leave, he told Christie to make sure her husband -- now with eyes taped shut and tubes protruding from his face -- showed up for his court date, or else he'd be arrested.

Scott's office conducted its own internal investigation of Nick Christie's death and, perhaps not surprisingly, found no wrongdoing on the part of any Lee County deputy. That conclusion may come back to bite the county. Municipalities have what's known as sovereign immunity from civil lawsuits. But one way to get around sovereign immunity in a civil rights case is to show that a government agency has displayed a pattern or practice of improperly training employees about citizens' rights. Since using pepper spray on a restrained inmate and neglecting to get him medical attention are both clearly established civil rights violations, in concluding that none of his officers acted outside of department policy, Scott may have given DiCello an opening.

And in fact, none of the deputies involved with Christie's death were disciplined in any way. Florida State Attorney Stephen Russell declined to press criminal charges. DiCello says that Russell's review was based almost entirely on the sheriff's department report. Samantha Syoen, communications director for Russell's office, says the investigation did use much of the sheriff department's investigation, but that the possible bias of that report was taken into consideration when deciding whether or not to pursue criminal charges. "We've prosecuted police officers before." Syoen says. "We've prosecuted judges, we've even prosecuted our own."

Syoen says the state attorney's office didn't clear the deputies involved with Christie's death, it only determined that under Florida law there wasn't enough evidence for criminal charges.

"Our office was very concerned about what happened to Mr. Christie," she said. "But the memo concluded that this would be a matter better settled at the federal level, either with possible criminal charges or with a lawsuit."

According to DiCello, the office of U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill has yet to show any interest in the case. (O'Neill's office referred HuffPost to the FBI's Fort Myers regional office. That office did not return HuffPost's request for comment.)

Joyce Christie returned to Girard, Ohio shortly after Nick, her husband of 40 years, had died. A few days after she returned, she received something in the mail from Lee County, Florida. It was a warrant for her husband's arrest.

Video below via FOX 13 in Tampa Bay, Fla.:

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