Central Valley

Inquiry into Stanislaus County jail death continues

It's been more than four months since inmate Craig Prescott died after jailers used Tasers and pepper spray to subdue him at the Stanislaus County Jail.

It's been more than two months since a pathologist determined that the Modesto man died of hypertensive heart disease, something his wife disputes.

Still, the district attorney's office expects to take about three more weeks to determine whether a crime was committed. Sheriff's officials say downtown jailers followed departmental guidelines in trying to restrain and move Prescott to another cell April 11. He died two days later.

Rachel Prescott said she is disappointed the investigation into her husband's death has taken so long.

"Time has pretty much come to a stop, and it's going very slowly for me as I wait for answers as to what happened," she said. "(His death) doesn't make any more sense to me now than it did over four months ago."

Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager said investigators will take as much time as necessary. That process includes prosecutors doing interviews, requesting more information from the agencies involved or obtaining expert opinions.

"In any case where we are reviewing an in-custody death, we want to be very thorough in our investigation prior to drawing any conclusions," Fladager said.

She said prosecutors have most recently been waiting to receive a copy of a second autopsy report from the attorney representing Prescott's family.

"That has not yet been forthcoming," she said. "Once we receive that report, or a confirmation that it either doesn't exist or that they will not provide it, we will be able to complete our review."

Wife: Report needed first

Rachel Prescott said the independent autopsy report cannot be completed until the family's attorney receives a detailed report of the incident and jail records.

Legal experts disagree on whether three months is a long time for prosecutors to complete an investigation into an inmate's death.

Bill Naber, a trial consultant based in Auburn, specializes in cases of inmates who die while in custody. He worked for 20 years — 13 as a jailer — at the sheriff's departments in Marin and Sonoma counties. He said it's common for investigations to take four to six months.

"I've seen many of these cases go on for as much as a year before they reach the prosecution stage," said Naber, adding, "You're making a serious decision, so you better make sure you have all your ducks lined up in a row. A rush to judgment will blow up in your face."

Ruth Jones is a professor at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento and was a New York City prosecutor for five years. She said three months to complete the investigation appears unusual.

"It seems to be a long time, but it isn't excessively long," she said. "Typically, it shouldn't take months to complete."

Stanislaus County Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley said prosecutors are trying only to determine whether a crime was committed. She said the fact that deputies were involved has nothing to do with how long it will take.

Prescott, 38, was arrested April 7 on suspicion of stalking and making threats against his wife, who had a restraining order against him and had custody of their six children.

His wife has said she had her husband arrested because she wanted him to get help for mental health problems.

During jailhouse transfer

The altercation occurred April 11 as deputies tried to move Prescott from the general population to a "safety cell." He stopped breathing, was unresponsive and was taken to Doctors Medical Center in Modesto.

At 11:20 a.m. April 13, Prescott was declared dead after doctors turned off life support machines.

Jones said this type of investigation often focuses on physical evidence. She said analyzing results from blood and tissue tests can slow the process.

"The first step is trying to determine whether this was a homicide and not just a natural death," Jones said. "Then they have to determine whether this was a wrongful death and not an accidental death."

Sheriff's officials and prosecutors have declined to say which deputies were involved in the struggle with Prescott or how many. Prescott had a "few" Taser marks on his back, but authorities won't say how many times he was shocked and the autopsy was inconclusive. Tasers deliver an electric shock to subdue a combative subject.

Aside from the physical evidence, the possibility of Prescott's family filing a civil lawsuit against the county could be lengthening the investigation, said John Myers, also a criminal justice professor at McGeorge School of Law.

"It doesn't have to take a long time, but (three months) is not extraordinary," he said. "My guess is they want to do this correctly and get this right."

Rachel Prescott said it's too early to decide whether the family will pursue a civil lawsuit.

Shipley said the possibility of a civil lawsuit "doesn't even enter our minds."

She said it might take prosecutors three more weeks to release their report.

"It could be less; it could be more," Shipley said. "We don't know yet. We want to make sure we have everything so that we can make an informed and intelligent decision."

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or 578-2394.

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