Three Santa Clara County jail guards have been accused of homicide, conspiracy and assault under the color of authority in connection to an inmate’s death last week.
Correctional officers Jereh Lubrin, 28; Matthew Farris, 27, and Rafael Rodriguez, 27, were arrested Thursday and held without bail. The District Attorney has yet to officially charge them.
The three correctional officers—employees of the Sheriff’s Office but not sworn deputies—are accused of beating to death 31-year-old mentally ill inmate Michael James Tyree. Detectives gave the guards a chance to make a statement upon their arrest, but they pleaded the Fifth.
"I'm unable to disclose all of the evidence that points to the culpability of these three individuals, but it's unmistakable that .... committed this cowardly and heinous act against an unarmed individual they were entrusted to protect," Sheriff Laure Smith said at a press conference Thursday.
— ABC7 News (@abc7newsBayArea) September 3, 2015
Tyree, a low-level offender in protective custody on the sixth floor of San Jose's Main Jail, reportedly suffered internal bleeding after an encounter with the guards. He was reported dead in his cell—his naked body covered in vomit and feces—just after midnight on Aug. 27.
Three Correctional Deputies were arrested in association with last week's in custody death. Press conference later today — SantaClaraCoSheriff (@SCCoSheriff) September 3, 2015
Tyree, who was homeless, was serving a five-day sentence for misdemeanor drug possession and petty theft. Officials planned to transfer him to a mental health facility the very next day.
On the evening of Aug. 26, deputies Lubrin, Rodriguez and Farris conducted a routine clothing search in the 6B wing, a warren reserved for inmates who need special protection. Tyree was locked alone in his cell, Smith said.
According to the Merc, inmates heard Tyree cry for help when the three officers were in his cell forcing him to take his medication. He fell silent after the guards left.
An hour later, just after midnight on Agu. 27, Lubrin returned to the 6B wing to begin a routine welfare check. He issued a "man down" call over his radio. According to Lubrin's own incident report, he found Tyree's filth-covered body on the floor of the cell. Rodriguez helped Lubrin drag the body out of the cell and attempted to resuscitate Tyree.
Paramedics arrived minutes later and pronounced him dead. Jail officials alerted detectives, the DA's homicide unit and a pathologist.
Officials suspected foul play after watching surveillance videos, reviewing evidence and interviewing witnesses. County Medical Examiner Joseph O'Hara confirmed those suspicions by ruling Tyree's death a homicide, authorities said.
Smith said she moved the investigation along quickly because the evidence was so incriminating.
"I made the decision after thoughtful consideration and consultation with our investigative team and command staff that the three accused must be taken off the streets as soon as possible," she said.
Two of those officers were arrested at their homes and the other turned himself in this morning. They were booked at the same jail where Tyree died. Hours later, they were transferred to Santa Rita Jail in Dublin, where they will be isolated from other inmates.
"I'm compelled again to say it pains me that those sworn to protect lose their moral compass," Smith said at the press conference.
Paula Canny, an attorney representing Tyree's family, said that even though the victim was an inmate, his life held value.
"Michael was somebody's brother, somebody's son, somebody's cousin, somebody's nephew," Canny said. "Michael had struggled many years with mental illness. In reality, he was in custody as a result of criminal acts—allegedly occurring—that really were results of mental illness."
Tyree's death, she said, shows a systemic failure to treat mentally ill people. Tyree was in jail only because there was no room for him at a mental health facility.
Last week's in-custody death has drawn comparisons to a 1995 case that erupted in controversy over how jails treat mentally ill inmate. Joseph Leitner, manic-depressive, fell into a coma after guards placed a blanket over his head in an attempt to restrain him as they dragged him to the eighth-floor psych ward.
Like Tyree, he was a low-level offender, locked up on a public nuisance charge. The officers handling Leitner were fired, but won their jobs back through arbitration.
This story has been updated.
Below is a video of the entire press conference.