Mentally Ill Inmate's Death Prompts Federal Lawsuit

When Christopher Lopez lost his life in a Pueblo-area jail in March 2013, few beyond his immediate family knew of his passing.


Now, however, Lopez's final moments are at the center of a lawsuit that accuses numerous supervisors and employees working for the Colorado Department of Corrections with extreme neglect and callousness for allegedly failing to get him much needed medical help and standing by as he died.


Attorney David Lane tells us the shocking story:


On March 17, 2013, in full view of most of the Defendants, a shackled and stripped Christopher Lopez died alone and ignored, on the cold concrete floor of a cell at the San Carlos Correctional Facility. His death could have been easily prevented by most of the defendants had any one of them simply picked up a phone and called for medical help. Instead, the Defendants, all employees of the Colorado Department of Corrections, ultimately made what could pass as a documentary film on how to ignore the obvious and serious medical needs of a dying prisoner for hours until the very last breath of life leaves his body.


Lane believes authorities will have a difficult time refuting the facts as presented in the lawsuit, given that "the whole thing is on high-quality, made-for-TV video.


"The first video shows Christopher Lopez lying face down on the floor of his cell, naked from the waist up, and the staff is yelling in the cuff slot" -- the slot in the cell door through which prisoners can extend their hands in order to be handcuffed. "They're saying, 'Come to the slot and cuff up or we're not going to help you with your medical issue.' But you can see Lopez is virtually unconscious. He's trying to lift his head but he's not strong enough to do it."


"Then they gear up the force team" -- personnel assigned to forcibly extract an inmate from his cell -- "and go in. But first, they talk about pepper-spraying him because he's not complying with their demands, even though some low-level guard says he has a medical issue. The only reason they don't pepper-spray him is because they're short-staffed."


"Their reports about this are all part of the cover up," Lane contends. "They say, 'He disobeyed our order' to make it seem like he was obstreperous when he was actually almost unconscious."


Once inside the cell, Lane continues, staffers "put Lopez in a restraint chair with a belly chain and his wrists shackled to the belly chain, and put a spit hood over him even though he wasn't doing anything.


"If he was disobeying their orders, it was because he was 95 percent dead at this point."


"Then they wheel him away," Lane allows, "and in this video, you see him alone in a cell in a restraint chair having a grand mal seizure. It's really difficult to watch. But the guards are standing around talking about Walmart and what they're going to do on Saturday night. They go on and on and on and on.


"After a while, they take him out of the restraint chair, but he's still in full restraint, wearing only his boxer shorts, as he lies on the cold, concrete floor with his head under a toilet. From time to time, you can hear them say, 'Lopez? Ready to cooperate with us, Lopez?' And all you can hear is him breathing. If you saw a guy lying on a sidewalk in this condition, the first thing you'd do is call 911 -- but they do nothing."


At one point during the course of events, a nurse can be seen entering -- but Lane says her mission wasn't to render emergency aid. "She says, 'It's time for your psych meds.' He doesn't respond to that, because he's near death. So they say, 'Fine,' and give him a forcible injection into his butt of his psych meds."


Lopez doesn't respond, Lane points out -- "and over the course of the next hour," he says, "you can literally see Christopher Lopez take his last breath on earth."


After that, Lane says, more time passed. "Twenty minutes later, some of the guards realize, 'Hey, I wonder if this guy's breathing. Was he breathing before?' And my response to that is, he was breathing for almost his entire life, but he's not breathing now, because he's dead. And they start doing CPR on a dead man. Then, finally, the EMTs arrive, and their first order is to turn off the video. But it doesn't matter. He's long since dead."


An autopsy eventually determined that Lopez "died of severe hyponatremia, a condition that occurs when the level of sodium in a person's blood is abnormally low," the suit notes. And according to Lane, one cause of sodium deficiency is psychotropic medication of the type Lopez was on -- and the very stuff with which he was injected shortly before his death. Lane isn't saying this final shot killed him -- "I'm not a doctor," he stresses -- but he contends that "all it would have taken to cure him was to give him some sodium and monitor his blood. But they couldn't be bothered."


These circumstances are so extreme that even the Department of Corrections acknowledges things went wrong. Lane refers to a DOC statement "in which they extend sincere condolences to the family, talk about regretting that the incident occurred and say they've fired people as a result of this, disciplined other people and instituted training to make sure it doesn't happen again, blah blah blah."


In his view, though, this admission is wholly inadequate.


"Just because you're sorry you killed somebody doesn't mean it's okay and there are no consequences for your actions," he says. "Where was their apology before we filed suit? The inspector general filed a report with the DOC essentially saying this has all the earmarks of criminally negligent homicide -- so why didn't anybody at the DOC refer this to the district attorney for prosecution? Why did they sweep it under the rug? Why didn't they reach out to the family and explain how he died? Whenever his mother contacted the DOC, no one would give her any information. It was only when my office got involved that they were forced to release documents that shed light on exactly what happened.


"The DOC may be sorry, but I'm going to make them sorrier," said Lane.


Just as important, in his view, is communicating the message that while what happened to Lopez is hardly typical, it's not an isolated incident, either.


"There should be a torchlight parade of citizens with pitchforks and torches to the governor's office to demand that Governor Hickenlooper take action about the medical care at the Department of Corrections," Lane says. "I get case after case after case of gross violations of standard practice and medical care at the DOC."



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