Force justified in death of Florida inmate, 75

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A 75-year-old black inmate died after corrections officers used force while moving him to a psychiatric observation cell in a Florida jail, but no criminal charges were filed because the officers' actions were justified, according to internal documents from the jail and sheriff's office.

William Howard was found unresponsive at the Orange County jail in November, three days after being arrested and charged with aggravated battery, accused of stabbing his wife.

According to an autopsy report and a 20-page review by the sheriff's office, corrections officers performed a "take-down" while moving Howard to another cell for observation, causing a neck fracture and Howard's death.

Force was used when Howard would not cooperate with officers, jail spokeswoman Tracy Zampaglione told the Orlando Sentinel ( ).

Several officers remain under internal investigation, and three nursing staff members were reprimanded, including one who was fired for not properly treating Howard afterward, according to internal jail documents.

The Orange-Osceola State Attorney's Office reviewed the use of force and didn't file criminal charges against the officers, according to a May 8 letter sent to the jail.

Howard's family questioned why force was needed.

"We're talking about a 75-year-old man," Howard's brother, Waverly Howard, said. "I mean, there's not a whole lot of strength there. He was in jail and wasn't armed."

Howard was booked into jail Nov. 16. Two days later, he began making incoherent statements and wandering around a common area in jail. He was placed on a suicide watch but wasn't injured after officers sprayed him with pepper spray and transferred him to another cell, according to the sheriff's office review.

Hours later, Howard was sprayed with pepper spray again and officers were instructed to "take him down" when jailers said he resisted attempts to move him, according to the sheriff's office.

Video recorded by one officer showed Howard tensing his body and yelling as officers tried to wrestle him to the floor, the Sentinel reported.

The sheriff's review determined one officer appeared to perform a leg sweep, causing Howard to fall head first to the floor. The video showed four officers carrying Howard, face-down and limp, to a new cell.

Once there, Howard was able to move and refused medical assistance, but he began complaining Nov. 19 of neck and back pain along with weakness and decreased sensation in his legs, according to the autopsy. Howard wasn't hospitalized until he was found unresponsive with no pulse, the review found. He died Nov. 20.

The blunt force left Howard with a fractured neck and spinal cord damage, which led to brain swelling, hemorrhages and death, the autopsy found.

An internal medical review found a registered nurse at the jail "took no action, performed no exam and documented nothing on this patient" after the attack despite concerns about Howard's well-being. The nurse was fired Jan. 6, and two other nurses received written reprimands for failing to follow through with Howard's care.

Howard's family said the officers' actions were "unnecessary and overly aggressive," and Howard died because his medical complaints were ignored, according to a statement from their lawyer, Howard Butler.

A document from the State Attorney's Office said the officers acted in "response to what they reasonably perceived to be physical resistance," and no criminal charges would be filed.

Howard's death was ruled a homicide. Homicides aren't considered criminal if a death is in self-defense or when an officer uses justified force.

Waverly Howard said his brother had never been aggressive, and his death meant the family would never understand why his wife was attacked, leaving her with multiple stab wounds.