Medical examiner rules 2009 inmate death homicide, family plans to sue

The San Francisco Medical Examiner’s Office has ruled the death last year of a jail inmate who was being restrained by sheriff’s deputies to be homicide.

Issiah Downes, 31, of San Francisco, was pronounced dead at about 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 7, 2009, in the county jail at 850 Bryant St. He had reportedly become “verbally disruptive” with other inmates and resisted deputies’ efforts to move him into another cell.

An attorney for Downes’ family blamed his death on Sheriff’s Department policies and training. The family is preparing a wrongful death lawsuit.

The Medical Examiner’s Office said Thursday it ruled Downes’ manner of death to be homicide “after a careful and thorough investigation,” but it emphasized that the determination does not speak to any possible criminal activity.

Police said Thursday they are still investigating the case but have made no arrests.

“This is an open and ongoing investigation,” police spokesman Officer Samson Chan said. “This case is currently being reviewed.”

The Medical Examiner’s Office said Downes probably died due to “respiratory arrest during prone restraint” coupled with “morbid obesity.”

Downes, who was 6-feet, 1-inch tall and weighed 300 pounds, had been handcuffed and forced to the ground. Other deputies moved in to assist while he was lying face down.

Geri Green, an attorney representing Downes’ mother Esther, said Thursday that the sheriff’s deputies placed their weight on Downes’ back and neck, causing him to asphyxiate.

Downes had been heard shouting, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” before he went limp, according to Green.

“This particular type of restraint is very dangerous,” she said. “Asphyxiation is a common result.”

Green said the Sheriff’s Department has no written policy on restraint, and the department’s training of deputies for such situations “falls woefully short of any legal or reasonable techniques to use.”

Green said she intends to file a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco on Friday seeking unspecified damages.

A spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department said the agency did not believe it was at fault.

“We are very sorry that this death occurred, however we believe that all department procedures were followed properly,” Eileen Hirst, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department, said Thursday.

Downes had been on parole when he was arrested in March 2009 and charged with felony assault with a deadly weapon and multiple counts of resisting arrest, according to the Sheriff’s Department. He also had prior convictions for robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and battery on a police officer.

In 2002, Downes was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. He was released from prison in 2008.

While in jail after his 2009 arrest, Downes tried to gouge out his eyes with his own hands and succeeded in blinding himself in one eye, according to authorities.

According to Hirst, Downes had a history of psychiatric problems as well as “assaultive behavior toward other prisoners” and “self-destructive acts.”

Dennis Damato, 49, said he was in a nearby jail cell at the time of the Sept. 7 incident and witnessed one deputy put Downes in a headlock.

“And then he hits the ground,” Damato said.

Damato said several other deputies then arrived, and “most of them just piled on the pile.” He then heard Downes screaming about not being able to breathe.

According to Damato, Downes was on the floor for about five minutes before deputies carried him out, motionless. An ambulance arrived several minutes later, he said.

Green said the Sheriff’s Department has been the subject of similar lawsuits in the past.

“They have been on notice that this is a problem, for many, many years,” she said. “This is not new.”

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