Culver City Edition East Edition Herald American Lead Story Lynwood Press Northeast Edition The Press West Edition

County pays $3.25 million to settle jail death lawsuits

LOS ANGELES — The county Board of Supervisors voted Nov. 9 to pay out a total of $3.25 million to two mothers who alleged — in unrelated lawsuits — that deputies staged their young sons’ suicides to cover up fatal beatings in county jails.

John Horton, 22, was found hanging in his cell in the Twin Towers Correctional Facility on March 30, 2009.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said Horton’s death may have been an example of negligence inside an overcrowded and troubled jail.

Lawyers for Horton’s mother, Helen Jones, said her son could have been beaten to death while in solitary confinement and that the only people who had access to him during his month in a section of the jail known as “the hole” were the deputies responsible for him.

“The hastily staged suicide scene does not shroud the simple fact that Mr. John Horton died from internal hemorrhaging caused by defendant jailers who also refused him medical and psychological care,” Jones’ attorneys alleged in their court papers.

The lawyers maintained that injuries on Horton’s neck were not the type associated with a hanging, though the county coroner found the cause of death to be “hanging and other undetermined factors.”

Horton was placed in solitary confinement after a scuffle with at least one deputy in early March 2009, according to Jones’ lawyers.

His mother said her son was incarcerated for failing to show up for his court-ordered drug program.

Attorney Anthony Luti, on behalf of Jones, said deputies failed to properly monitor Horton, who may have been suffering from mental illness after use of the hallucinogenic drug PCP.

The board agreed to pay Jones $2 million to settle the lawsuit.

In an unrelated suit with similar allegations, Earl Lee Johnson’s mother, Avean Edwards of South Los Angeles, claimed deputies beat her son nearly to death in his cell and then hung him from a bed sheet in an attempt to make it appear to be a suicide.

Earl Lee Johnson, 24, died Oct. 18, 2014, in a hospital where he lingered for three weeks after the alleged beating and hanging, according to attorney James Orland.

On the day of the alleged attack, deputies “for no justified reason, and for no lawful justification, physically assaulted and struck decedent in the head multiple times to the point where decedent was unconscious … then in an effort to cover up the unprovoked and malicious attack, hung decedent in his cell with a bed sheet,” the lawsuit alleged.

The defendants “intentionally conspired to conceal, and did conceal” the facts surrounding Johnson’s death, the complaint alleged.

Orland said his client’s son, who had been arrested in connection with a family dispute, was not convicted of any charges and had been expected to be released from jail within a few months.

The attorney said the family commissioned a private autopsy, which found the cause of death to be “blunt force trauma to the head, not strangulation.”

The board agreed to pay out $1.25 million to Edwards to settle the case.

County lawyers noted the risks of litigation in recommending settlement in both instances.

No summary of the facts was provided with the recommendation to settle in either case.

Corrective action plans — designed to prevent similar future incidents — were also not provided with the board agenda and any discussion of such plans was postponed to Dec. 6.