Lawsuit: Traumatic death in Davis jail result of civil rights violation

Wednesday , January 03, 2018 - 6:00 AM1 comment

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

SALT LAKE CITY — A federal lawsuit alleges the Davis County Jail negligently handled the care of a woman who died of a massive blunt-force spleen injury several hours after she fell from a cell bunk.

Heather Ashton Miller, 28, died Dec. 21, 2016, at a hospital while in the custody of the Davis County Jail. The suit, filed Wednesday by Miller’s mother, Cynthia Farnham-Stella, follows a year of revelations about inmate deaths in county lockups around Utah. According to records gathered by the Standard-Examiner, 24 people died while in custody of county jails in 2016 — including six in Davis County.

RELATED: AG's Davis jail death investigation reveals possible missteps, lack of urgency

RELATED: Groups open legal front against Utah's secret jail standards

Farnham-Stella, in a phone interview, said she hopes her U.S. District Court case will trigger changes in Utah jails to prevent deaths of all manner of inmates, including people arrested on drug charges, those with mental health issues and people who need maintenance medications to avoid major health problems or death.

“Heather’s death has brought all this to the surface,” Farnham-Stella said.

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Tad Draper, Farnham-Stella’s attorney, said the jail violated Miller’s civil rights by exhibiting deliberate indifference to her care.

“She’s not in jail hardly more than 24 hours and hasn't been convicted of a crime and she’s dead,” Draper said. “It’s clear that they denied her medical attention.”

Nurses did not check Miller’s vital signs after the fall and moved her to another cell with little monitoring, where she experienced massive internal bleeding for hours, according to the suit.

The jail has no policies on how medical staff and jailers should handle inmates after a fall, the suit said.

Defendants are Davis County, Sheriff Todd Richardson, jail nursing supervisor James Ondricek and a jail nurse, Marvin Anderson.

The suit seeks monetary damages and an injunction forcing the county to enact adequate jail medical policies and staff training.

An independent investigation of Miller’s death by the Weber County Sheriff’s Office criticized the Davis jail for cleaning up the two cells Miller occupied the day of her injury and the medical unit, where jailers trundled her in a wheelchair after she became unresponsive. The Weber County officers said those places should have been treated like a crime scene — preserved for collection of evidence because Miller was under the care of the jail at the time of her injury.

It was noted in those reports that Davis officials didn’t consider Miller’s death “in-custody” because she was pronounced dead at the hospital.

RELATED: Weber detectives: Davis jail staff tainted crime scene after inmate's death

A follow-up investigation by the Utah Attorney General’s Office did not mention the evidence tampering and concluded that any negligence by jail medical staff did not rise to a level justifying criminal charges.

The Davis County Sheriff’s Office did not publicize Miller’s death — Utah law does not require jails to do so. But after learning of the case, the Standard-Examiner sought public records of all deaths in county jails around the state.

The 2016 Davis fatalities included four hangings in a two-month period and the death of a woman whose family complained did not receive life-sustaining medications after she was booked for a traffic-related offense.

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State legislators recently announced efforts to look into jail practices. Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said he will introduce a bill requiring jails and state prisons to file annual reports of in-custody deaths.

Jail policies also are under a microscope. The Utah Sheriffs’ Association uses jail standards held as a proprietary secret by a consultant, Gary DeLand. The lack of public oversight has resulted in calls for more transparency in jail operations, including the non-public inspection process.

“This shouldn’t be happening,” Farnham-Stella, of Reno, Nevada, said. “Utah has the highest jail death rate and no one was taking notice. My daughter died for no reason and could have been saved.”

Draper said his client “very much wants change. This is far more than a litigation.”

Farnham-Stella said she’s only following through with what she decided to do after her daughter died.

“We’re a society and we should care for one another,” she said. “We’re all in this together, and we can either make it better or not.”

The Davis jail, she said, “chose to take my daughter’s life in their own hands and be her judge and not care and not take a second look,” she said.

County officials, including Richardson, have declined to comment about specifics of the Miller case. Requests for comment on the lawsuit were not immediately answered by Richardson and Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings.

Richardson said recently his office changed some jail policies to improve medical and mental health screening of incoming inmates, and to bolster nurses’ training and train more jailers as medics.

Miller’s jail intake sheet was blank, and jail personnel said in investigative reports that they assumed Miller was withdrawing from narcotics.

The woman was a passenger in a car stopped by sheriff’s deputies, who said they found narcotics and drug paraphernalia on her. 

County prosecutors filed misdemeanor charges against Miller a few days after she died, then dismissed them a month later.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at Follow on Twitter at @mshenefelt and Facebook at

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