Three Santa Clara County correctional officers arrested last week on suspicion of beating an inmate to death have been officially charged with murder.
The District Attorney’s Office filed homicide and assault charges Tuesday against Jereh Lubrin, 28; Matthew Farris, 27; and Rafael Rodriquez, also 27, in connection to the death of 31-year-old Michael Tyree. Prosecutors have also accused the trio of assaulting a second inmate named Juan Villa. The Main Jail guards were arraigned the same day but entered no plea.
The guards’ arrest came days after Tyree’s death. The mentally ill inmate—locked up for petty theft and drug possession—was found just after midnight on Aug. 27, battered, bloodied and smeared with vomit and feces on the floor of his one-man cell.
Lubrin, Farris and Rodriquez were the only ones to enter that cell the day before, according to Sheriff Laurie Smith. The Sheriff’s Office oversees the Department of Corrections (DOC), which staffs the two county jails. Tyree died of blunt force trauma that lacerated his internal organs, according to the county’s Medical Examiner-Coroner Joseph O’Hara.
Now, with charges officially filed, new details have emerged about events leading up to Tyree’s death. Investigators say the confrontation between Tyree and the officers started over a “pill call,” when correctional staff administer medication.
Tyree was housed in his own cell on the sixth floor, an area reserved for inmates in protective custody. On the evening of Aug. 26, Tyree pocketed his pills and walked away instead of taking them as directed, according to Sgt. Marc Carrasco, who was assigned by the Sheriff’s Office to investigate the case
A jail nurse told Lubrin, who confronted Tyree and ordered him back to the “pill call” window.
“Inmate Tyree called Nurse Marilyn a liar and a rapist,” Carrasco wrote in his statement of facts filed with the DA’s charges. “Once back at the window, Inmate Tyree took the pills from his pocket and ate them.”
Hours later, inmates on the sixth floor were allowed to leave their cells for what jail officials call “program time” in the common areas. Tyree joined the other inmates in swapping dirty clothes for a fresh jumpsuit. Inmates then returned to their cells while Lubrin and Farris conducted a routine search to see if anyone squirreled away extra clothing.
Close to 11pm that night, per Carrasco’s narrative, Rodriquez joined the other two officers to confront another inmate, Juan Villa, about a dispute he had earlier that day. Officers allegedly hit Villa in the head and twisted his arms, “leaving visible marks on them.”
The officers then left Villa’s cell and continued to search the lower level of the pod, according to Carrasco. When they got to Tyree’s cell—No. 39—Lubrin and Farris entered while Rodriquez waited outside the open door.
“Do I have to get up?” Tyree reportedly asked. Farris answered affirmatively, rousing him from his bed.
“Inmate Tyree’s distinctive voice could be heard screaming, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Stop,’” Carrasco wrote. “Screaming could be heard throughout the pod for several minutes and was accompanied by the sounds of thumping, wall banging and what sounded like blows to a person’s body. At some point during the screaming period, Officer Rodriquez closed the door so that it was open a small amount.”
The encounter left Tyree with wounds on his eye, chin and cheek, bruises above his left ear and injuries on his upper arms, legs, back and hips. The most serious injury was on his lower left back, which ruptured his spleen and liver.
“The internal bleeding from this injury caused Inmate Tyree to die within minutes to no more than one hour,” Carrasco stated. “The officers then left Inmate Tyree’s cell continuing their searches. They did not call for medical assistance for Inmate Tyree.”
For an hour, no one entered Tyree’s cell. Then, minutes after midnight, Lubrin came back and radioed a “man down” alert. Tyree was pronounced dead at 12:35am.
Following Sheriff Smith’s announcement that she was recommending murder charges against the three officers, community members staged a protest Friday urging officials to look into other cases of abuse.
If convicted, Lubrin, Farris and Rodriquez could face life in prison.
“These men violated the law, human dignity, and the job that they were sworn to do,” District Attorney Jeff Rosen said in a statement Tuesday. “They may have thought that their violence, enacted late at night in the obscurity of a jail cell and against a helpless and mentally ill inmate, was invisible. Today we see it for all of its brutality. Mr. Tyree was not invisible. His death was not invisible. We will see that there is justice.”
DA JEFF ROSEN: Whether a person is on the street, or in that jail, he deserves human dignity, he deserves to be treated like a human being.
— Santa Clara DA (@SantaClaraDA) September 8, 2015
DA JEFF ROSEN: We charged three correctional officers with murder for the beating death of mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree, a human being.
— Santa Clara DA (@SantaClaraDA) September 8, 2015
San Jose's retired Independent Police Auditor wrote an op-ed in the Mercury News over the weekend urging county leaders to establish an office of civilian oversight for the DOC.
"When correctional deputies police themselves, there is no accountability to the community," she wrote. "Secrecy and darkness are dangerous; they have no place in the DOC or in any other part of the Sheriff's Department."
The chief of corrections, Undersheriff John Hirokawa, told an ABC7 reporter that he takes personal responsibility for Tyree’s killing and will re-open investigations into complaints about brutality under the color of authority. Tyree’s death has once again raised concerns about how jail authorities deal with mentally ill inmates.
For decades, jail watchdogs have called attention to the lack of training and lack of facilities for inmates with psychiatric issues. Lubrin spoke but said little to The Merc in a jailhouse interview last week. In another interview with the newspaper, Rodriquez denied the charges. Only Farris has not yet made a public statement about the case.