Justice Center Still Under Scrutiny for Custodial Deaths

From the February 2013 PNL #821

by Bruce Peak

On August 6, 2010, Raul Pinet died in custody from “asphyxia during restraint” at the Onondaga County Justice Center while being detained by the Sheriff’s Department. Sheriff’s deputies caused the death by kneeling on his neck and back over his lung cavity and improperly fitting him with a “spit mask.” The Grand Jury, in its report on the Pinet case, claimed that the officers of the Syracuse Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office acted reasonably “in the exercise of their official powers...” Yet, according to the same report, the deputies failed to properly supervise Pinet and get medical attention for him, and the jail nurse who checked on Pinet failed to conduct a thorough assessment of him, completing this assessment in 36 seconds. The jail guards left Pinet alone for seven minutes before going back in to assess his condition. They didn’t go in sooner because they believed he was “faking.”

An independent investigation by the New York State Commission on Corrections ruled Pinet’s death a homicide, caused directly by sheriff’s deputies who did not follow established policies and procedures in the jail. The Grand Jury report stated that the death was caused by “cocaine excited delirium syndrome,” a thoroughly discredited diagnosis in the medical field. Dr. Werner Spitz, a renowned forensic pathologist and the former medical examiner in Detroit, says this condition does not exist. It is used by medical examiners to imply natural causes in a death at the hands of police. Spitz says he has never seen the cause of death labeled “excited delirium” without law enforcement involvement.


Raul Pinet, Sr. at an August 6, 2011 rally in Syracuse protesting his son’s death.
Photo: Ashley Sauers


The Onondaga County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) has also admitted that its employees’ negligence caused the death of Chuniece Patterson three years ago from a ruptured ectopic pregnancy while deputies and medical staff dismissed her agony as, again, “faking.”  Pinet’s and Patterson’s deaths, as well as several others at the Justice Center, were entirely avoidable had the OCSD adhered to established policies and procedures and responded to the situation with professionalism, rather than an inconsistent application of those procedures coupled with cavalier neglect.

In response to the murder of Pinet, Patterson, and numerous other instances of brutality at the jail, a diverse grouping of community organizations (including the Syracuse Peace Council) united in August 2010 to form the United as One Coalition. UAO, since its inception, has worked consistently to build an organized movement in Syracuse and Onondaga County to hold law enforcement officials and agencies accountable for their actions. As a result of this sustained movement, the District Attorney had no choice but to convene a Grand Jury in response to Pinet’s death. The actions of UAO and its member-organizations keep the people in the streets informed and organized with marches, demonstrations, public forums and speak-outs at meetings of the Common Council, the County Executive’s office, and any place where decisions are being made about law enforcement.

On December 8, 2012, the UAO Coalition held a public forum at Brown Memorial United Church regarding the Onondaga County Grand Jury report in the Pinet case. Barrie Gewanter of the New York Civil Liberties Union presented a riveting analysis of the discrepancies in the report regarding the failures of the Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) to follow established procedures and rejected the state commission’s findings.

Latino leader and local attorney Jose Perez referred to the Grand Jury report as a “joke” and responded to it with this statement: “There is no reason for any optimism that anything has changed at the jail. Nothing is going to change as long as there are no indictments against any officers... It’s amazing how the Grand Jury determined it was right what was done while at the same time acknowledging the fact that they failed to do many things... I think this is not a good sign. Trust in police officers and the sheriff’s department is not going to get better. This death is just the result of bad police work.”

So far, no one has been held accountable for Pinet or Patterson’s deaths or been subjected to prosecution or discipline. This is the true nature of the criminality inherent in these events. The only path left for any justice for the Pinet and Patterson families is a private lawsuit against the county, a long and drawn-out process that cannot force any changes in the Sheriff’s Department and obviously cannot bring them back to their families. The facts of Pinet and Patterson’s deaths demand administrative review, discipline, policy and procedure changes, and retraining to prevent this from happening a third time. If the Sheriff’s Department refuses to do this, if the New York State Commission of Corrections is powerless to force them, and if the DA’s Grand Jury procedure is insufficient in the true administration of justice and perhaps complicit in excusing the actions of law enforcement, it is time to create an oversight mechanism that will seek and promote that justice. 

United as One is promoting a speak-out at the Onondaga County Legislature on February 5 (see calendar on pg. 24) to address the need for community oversight of law enforcement. All concerned citizens and activists are urged to attend and to sign up and be heard. Two options have been put forward to be discussed with the County Executive, the County Attorney and the County Legislators:

1. The creation of a subcommittee of the County Legislature that has powers similar to the Civilian Review Board, with the additional ability to override any law enforcement veto of recommended action.

2. The creation of an independent oversight body outside the County Legislature, but empowered by it, to review and investigate and then to recommend, if deemed necessary, an override of any veto.

We must continue the community pressure at the county level. This means writing and calling our legislators, being present and speaking at every meeting of the legislature, and being present at every meeting of the Public Safety and Health Commission (next meeting is February 13 at noon) until this happens.

I think it is fairly obvious that the local media, although perhaps hampered by disinformation, misinformation or no information at all, did what they could to bring this needless tragedy to light. However, it is readily apparent that, especially in these cases, the justice system is there for the system, not for justice. We cannot count on the Sheriff’s Department to objectively investigate and discipline itself.  We need to change the system so that it is not left to the perpetrators to police themselves. We don’t just seek equality under the law, but rather social justice for all communities marginalized by the justice system.

To quote T.J. Jourian, “Equality means assimilation into the systems and institutions as they are, while social justice requires a radical re-imagining of those systems and institutions.”

If you are interested in getting involved in the movement, you can contact Ursula at the Syracuse Peace Council (ursula@peacecouncil.net) or the ANSWER Coalition (syracuse@answercoalition.org).

Bruce is a community activist who is a member of the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition and the United as One Coalition.