© 2024 | Jefferson Public Radio
Southern Oregon University
1250 Siskiyou Blvd.
Ashland, OR 97520
541.552.6301 | 800.782.6191
Listen | Discover | Engage a service of Southern Oregon University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

DOJ Report: No Criminal Charges For Jail Deputies In Deschutes Inmate Death

Before Edwin Mays died on the floor of the Deschutes County jail in December 2014, he was mocked by corrections officers who debated out loud whether Mays might need medical attention. Mays’ cellmate and half-brother, Adam Davenport, told a deputy he thought Mays should go to the hospital.

Soon after, Edwin Mays became unresponsive and died from methamphetamine overdose in his cell. He was 31.

The actions of the corrections officers and the treatment of Mays led to a Oregon Department of Justice review that lasted more than a year. On Tuesday, the DOJ’s final report concluded that there is insufficient evidence to prove that sheriff’s office staff engaged in criminal conduct related to Mays' death.

But the officers on duty that night could still face charges in a lingering $10.7 million civil suit against the county.

In May 2015, Mays’ family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the sheriff’s office, former Sheriff Larry Blanton and nine corrections deputies. The federal complaint claims the deputies on duty the night of Mays' death did not properly supervise Mays in his cell or provide sufficient medical care, and that his civil rights were violated.

"It’s like a shot in the gut," said Mays' father, Eddie Mays Jr. "It just makes it really difficult to have any confidence in the legal system in Oregon, in DOJ."

The Night Of Mays’ Death

Mays and Davenport were arrested during a traffic stop on Dec. 14, 2014, and booked into the county jail around 5 p.m. on suspicion of heroin possession and other counts. Officers reported that Mays appeared to be under the influence of stimulants, but Mays denied taking drugs, according to the DOJ report.

The federal complaint filed by Jennifer Coughlin, the family's lawyer,  provides a detailed account of the events that followed in the jail that night based on surveillance video from inside the jail obtained through a public records request.

Read:DOJ Investigation Into Death Of Edwin Mays

Over the course of the evening, jailers mocked Mays for his restlessness and erratic behavior, the lawsuit alleges.

“That guy is jacked up,” said one deputy who then imitated Mays’ movements. That drew laughter from other jail staffers, the suit alleges.

Shortly after, the same deputy encouraged other officers to watch as Mays thrashed about his cell.

“You got to come over here and watch,” the deputy said, according to the suit. “Pull up a seat, bro.”

The deputies said Mays may need medication for a possible drug overdose, and briefly discussed whether the inmate might need to go to the hospital, the lawsuit says. But no medical attention was called for at that point.

Medics from Bend Fire and EMS arrived at the jail during the same time period to administer care to a different inmate, but were not asked to evaluate Mays.

In interviews with jail staff, DOJ investigators learned that a corrections deputy discussed Mays’ condition with supervisors.

“Based on their training and experience, as well as their own observations of Mr. Mays, the supervisors believed that Mr. Mays would detoxify safely from the methamphetamine and that the corrections deputies should continue to regularly monitor Mr. Mays’ behavior,” the report says.

Three and a half hours after he was booked into the jail, deputies observed that Mays' breathing had slowed and that he was laying down on the floor, according to the family's lawsuit.

DOJ investigators spoke with medical professionals about how the body metabolizes methamphetamine and noted that a user usually sleeps off the effect of the drug. Fatal overdoses of meth are rare.

“Additionally, the fact that person had overdosed on methamphetamine would not be obvious to an observer because the lethal effects of the stimulant come about suddenly,” the report notes.

Deputies did not discover that Mays was not breathing until 30 minutes after he was first seen lying on the jail floor, according to the suit. At that point, they began to administer emergency care, but Mays died in the cell from methamphetamine toxicity, an autopsy showed.

DOJ investigators said that the deputies’ decision to monitor Mays was appropriate in the situation and that it was unclear if getting him to a hospital in the hours before his death would have saved him.

“here is no way to know whether earlier medical intervention would have made any difference in the outcome of Mr. Mays,” the report states.

“My sympathies go out to the Mays family,” said Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel, who requested the DOJ investigation. “Not only did they lose a loved one, in his final hours of life they had to see him mocked by government employees on video. No one should have to leave this world like that.

“That having been said, just because government employees acted inappropriately does not necessarily mean that a crime was committed. The attorney general determined there was insufficient evidence to support the criminal allegations, and I agree with the attorney general."

The Deschutes County Sheriff's office made a number of changes at the jail since Mays' death, including adding full-time nurses and purchasing heart rate and oxygen saturation wrist bands for inmates who need to be medically monitored. Additionally, four jail deputies were disciplined in April 2015 for the incident.

Sheriff Shane Nelson took office after Mays' death, and issued a statement.

"My condolences go to the Mays family for the death of their loved one. His overdose death is a reminder of the continuing threat of methamphetamine addiction in our community," said Nelson. "The unprofessional behavior of deputies on December 14, 2014 was not acceptable and has been dealt with in personnel actions in April 2015."

Civil Suit Will Continue

The DOJ investigators reported that they did not find sufficient evidence of criminally negligent homicide, criminal mistreatment, or official misconduct by any employees of the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office.

But the Mays family's wrongful death case against the jail, the former sheriff and the deputies will continue, said Coughlin, the family’s attorney. The suit asks for $10.7 million in damages, but was placed on hold during the state investigation.  

The civil case can now move ahead in part because it faces a different burden of proof in looking at the actions and circumstances surrounding Mays' death. The DOJ was unable to demonstrate “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the actions of the deputies caused Mays’ death. But civil suits can prove cases instead through a “preponderance of evidence.”

The defendants in the case could still face charges if found guilty in the civil suit. Some of the defendants declined to provide depositions in the civil suit due to the ongoing DOJ investigation. The civil case will be heard in trial court in Eugene.

“I simply cannot imagine any member of a jury not being highly disturbed by the laughing at, the mocking of Mr. Mays for hours as he was dying in his cell,” Coughlin said. “And that’s the important part for us — not the criminal indictment.”

Mays’ father said while he's still working through  his reaction to the DOJ report, he's also still grappling with the death of his son, which he said feels unresolved.

"It's been really difficult for me and the rest of the Mays family," said Mays. "It's coming up on 530 days since he lost his life. After hearing yesterday's report, it just left us in a state of shock."

Copyright 2016 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Amanda Peacher has reported for Oregon Public Broadcasting and the Mountain West News Bureua, a collaboration of public media organizations in the Mountain West.