Allen John "A.J." Long Soldier Jr.'s death was not negligent homicide, a jury unanimously decided after hearing lengthy testimony during a coroner's inquest Tuesday. Jurors, instead, agreed after 30 minutes of deliberations with numerous witnesses that the star basketball player's cause of death was acute alcohol withdrawal syndrome. Long Soldier, 18, died at Northern Montana Hospital in the early morning hours of Nov. 23 after being transported there from the Hill County Detention Center where he was being detained. After the jury delivered the verdict that no one was at fault in Long Soldier's death, Hill County Attorney Gina Dahl said the finding was appropriate. "There are no injuries to suggest he died any other way," she said in her closing statement. "Here we have detention officers who did exactly what they were trained to do," she said. But Long Soldier's grandmother Claudia Bear was upset. "He probably would have still been here with us, I think," had he been helped sooner, she said after the inquest. "I miss him so much, yet," she said, Adding that she wants him to be remembered for his personality and ability to play basketball, not as the alcoholic people might perceive him as. "He was a good kid. He respected older people," she said, and he was always friendly. "He was in good spirits all the time," Bear said. Because he died while in the custody of law enforcement, a coroner's inquest, presided over by a coroner from a neighboring county, was mandated by law, Richard Brown, the Fergus County coroner who led the inquest, explained to jurors. Dahl questioned most of the witnesses, but jurors and Brown also asked questions during the proceedings. Long Soldier, who led the Hays-Lodge Pole basketball team to the Class C state championship in 2007 and to the finals the year before, was originally apprehended by a Blaine County Sheriff's deputy in Harlem on a warrant for criminal contempt the evening of Nov. 19. The sheriff's office had been notified by Long Soldier's probation officer that he had an outstanding warrant, said Deputy Sheriff Timothy Richmond, who made the initial arrest after recognizing Long Soldier walking near the Harlem City Park. Long Soldier did not appear to h ave b e e n d r i n k i n g , Richmond said, and was cooperative. Long Soldier was transported to the Hill County facility because Blaine County does not have an adult detention center. While there, several detention officers testified that Long Soldier appeared to be in normal health initially, but that his health deteriorated over the next several days, twice being bad enough to go to the hospital. As t e s t imony of Long Soldier's last days unfolded, family members and friends, who filled the courtroom, listened, often crying and leaning on each other. Associate state medical provider Thomas Bennett, who performed the autopsy, found what detention officers and medical staff assumed as the cause of Long Soldier's death, alcohol withdrawal. He added that there was no criminal activity that led to it. No underlying disease was found, and despite being slightly enlarged, the brain and liver didn't contribute to his death either. Long Soldier's sl ight l y enlarged heart is fairly common, Bennett said, and also was not a contributing factor. "He went through a functional change at the end such as what we see with alcohol withdrawal," he told jurors. Death from alcohol withdrawal is often preventable, but somet imes, as wi th Long Soldier, it is the outcome. "I don't know how much more they could have done, in my opinion, to try to avoid this," he said. Agent Reed Scott of the state D i v i s i o n o f C r imi n a l Investigation also said that no criminal actions led to Long Soldier's death. Detention Officer Brandon Wilkes said that when he booked Long Soldier the morning of the 19th, he seemed normal. He began the booking process at about 7:30 a.m., he said, but didn't finish until 1:30 p.m. because of interruptions. "(Long Soldier) seemed very strong. He stood upright, smiled," he said. De t ent i on Of f i c e r Jo e Schroeder said that Long Soldier appeared normal and even joked during his initial hearing via video around 11 a.m. the 19th. "He seemed to be in fairly good spirits," Schroeder said. When Wilkes arrived at work the Nov. 20 at 6 a.m., Long Soldier was still in a holding cell. Later, Long Soldier began screaming. "He said somebody else had pulled out his hair and put it on the floor," Wilkes said. There was hair on the floor, but it was not Long Soldier's, he added. Long Soldier was then brought out of the cell and handcuffed to a bench in an effort to calm him, Wilkes said, which seemed to work. When Donald Farrar, a friend of Long Soldier's who was also incarcerated at the time, saw Long Soldier between 9 and 10 p.m. the night of Nov. 19, Long Soldier seemed normal and asked him how he was, Farrar said. While he was being out-processed the next day between 7 and 8 p.m., Farrar said he couldn't see Long Soldier, but could hear him asking for help from the staff, telling them he didn't feel well and was having trouble keeping food down. "I'm not kidding. I really don't feel good," Farrar said he overheard Long Soldier say. The next day, Long Soldier was moved to a padded holding cell because he was screaming and pounding on the door, Wilkes said. "He was hallucinating. He was talking to his mom and grandmother," Wilkes said. "He was talking, but when I would talk to him, he would not respond," Wilkes said. Wilkes didn't report the odd behavior to a supervisor, because he said it was similar to behavior of a person going through alcohol withdrawal. Schroeder also said that when he noticed Long Soldier beginning to sweat and hallucinate that he thought it was the onset of him detoxing. That same day, Long Soldier's condition reached a point where Blaine County was called and told that he should see a physician. "He was not coherent to the fact that we were there as officers," Schroeder said. Frank Meyer was the Blaine County deputy who accompanied Long Soldier to the emergency room at approximately 7 p.m. that night. He seemed confused at first but was coherent, Meyer said. Dr. Ronald Peterson examined Long Soldier at NMH's emergency room, taking blood and urine samples. The labs largely came back normal, he said, with the exception of an increase in liver function, consistent with alcohol use. Long Soldier was coherent and didn't suffer from tremors, Peterson said. Long Soldier was thirsty but not greatly dehydrated and wasn't running a fever, he said, and so he was released back to the detention center, with the understanding that if his symptoms worsened, he should be re-examined. Peterson also recommended that Long Soldier be evaluated by a mental health professional since he exhibited signs of mental health issues, likely schizophrenia. Before he was released, Long Soldier received a shot to reduce hallucinations and an anti-depressant medication, which Long Soldier tol d Peterson he had been taking. The shot seemed to help his hallucinations, and prescriptions were given for both, but detention officers cannot force inmates to drink, eat or take medications, and at that time Long Soldier was not eating or drinking. Hill County detention officers again called Blaine County the afternoon of Nov. 22, when Long Soldier again worsened. But Blaine County officers said that the hospital said to give him cold water and continue to monitor him, said Sharon Skyberg, a detention officer at the Hill County facility who was working at the time. She gave him water, but he didn't drink, she said. He was still hallucinating and asking that she move people away from a particular corner, she said. "Over the course of that night, he seemed to progressively be getting worse," Jesse Dibblee, a detention officer working that evening, testified. Long Soldier was moving around his cell and agitated, Dibblee said, but eventually stopped and lay on the floor, staring at a wall instead. A call was made to the Blaine County Sheriff's Office to get a deputy to escort Long Soldier to the hospital, Dibblee said. "His condition deteriorated so much, we ended up calling an ambulance," he said. Long Soldier continually curled into the fetal position while emergency personnel attempted to get him in the ambulance and was hallucinating that someone was trying to harm him, Dibblee said. Long Soldier reached the hospital at approximately 10:30 p.m. Dr. Mark Ward was called by the doctor on duty to help treat Long Soldier. By the time he began treatment shortly before midnight, Long Soldier was already in multi-system failure. Medical personnel made efforts to stabilize Long Soldier, but, in the end, those did not work. "He was basically a corpse when I got to the ER," Ward said, adding that he has seen several patients die from alcohol withdrawal, but "I have never seen one die this fast." Although Long Soldier was diagnosed with alcohol withdrawal perhaps later than would have been best, Dahl told jurors in closing statements, no criminal acts, either intentionally or of gross negligence, led to his death.
No gross criminal negligence in Long Soldier death
Published: Wednesday, March 17th, 2010
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