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Spokane County found liable in jail death following destruction of surveillance video

On May 9, 2022, a federal judge ruled that the county allowed the video to be overwritten through a process that automatically happens after 60 days.

SPOKANE, Wash. — More than six hours of surveillance video from the Spokane County Jail, which was key evidence in a wrongful death lawsuit, was overwritten, according to federal court documents.

A federal judge ruled that Spokane County was liable in the death of 55-year-old Cindy Lou Hill in August 2018. On May 9, 2022, a federal judge ruled that the county allowed the video to be overwritten through a process that automatically happens after 60 days. The judge said the county did so “with intent to avoid its litigation obligations.”

U.S. District Court Judge Mary Dimke issued a default judgment against the county. At the trial on July 11, the county will not argue its legal responsibility for Hill’s death. The county will only be able to argue the amount it will pay in damages to her estate.

Hill died of acute bacterial peritonitis due to ruptured liver adhesions with a hole in the small intestine, according to the medical examiner's office.

Hill was booked into the Spokane County Jail on Aug. 21, 2018 for drug possession. According to federal court documents, she told a nurse with NaphCare, the company the county contracts with for healthcare services at the jail, that she was a heroin user. Nursing staff then began periodic exams of Hill’s withdrawal symptoms.

On Aug. 25, a nurse attempted to examine Hill just before 9 a.m. Court documents say Hill was complaining of abdominal pain that was so bad, she couldn’t make her way to the edge of her cell to be evaluated. Due to jail policy, the nurse couldn’t go into her cell without a guard. Hill’s cellmate dragged her to the door so the nurse could perform palpitations to determine how much pain she was in. According to documents, the nurse ordered that Hill be moved to the medical wing, where guards check in on inmates every 30 minutes.

A camera in the medical wing of the jail captured Hill’s transfer at 9:10 a.m. The next available footage provided by the county from the same camera is recorded at 4:10 p.m. The county provided no explanation for the gap in video footage, documents say.  

Court documents say handwritten logs during that time show guards checked on Hill at 10:15 a.m., 11:09 a.m., 11:23 a.m., 12:07 p.m., 12:40 p.m., 1:10 p.m., 1:43 p.m., 1:58 p.m., 2:30 p.m., 3 p.m., and 3:20 p.m. The nurse said she tried to examine Hill sometime after 3 p.m. but she refused.

Surveillance footage of the guards’ encounters with Hill were not preserved by the county, according to court records. However, video before and after Hill’s move was available. Video is available of guards attempting to contact Hill at 5:24 p.m. when she was found without a pulse and not breathing. Court documents say Hill suffered a ruptured intestine that caused gastric contents to leak into her abdomen, ultimately causing an infection that killed her.

In depositions, then Spokane County Jail Director Michael Sparber and Lieutenant Don Hooper, who was assigned to the jail at the time, couldn’t explain why the footage was not preserved despite it being standard procedure to do so following a death in the jail.

According to court documents, Hooper testified that someone at the jail “made the conscious choice to preserve only certain portions of the video from Aug. 25, 2018.”

“If they don’t record it in 60 more days, the officers that would’ve been in charge of recording it knew that it would write over itself,” Hooper said.

Spokane County Detention Services only preserved video for the periods between 8:43 a.m. and 9:15 a.m. and 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Hooper confirmed that the footage between those time periods was “not preserved and can no longer be restored.”

Sparber testified that it would not have been appropriate for jail staff to fail to preserve a portion of the video and that he would see “no reason for the video to be destroyed.”

When the court asked the county’s attorney for an explanation of why the video wasn’t preserved, the attorney said “he wished he had some explanation for the court,” according to court documents.

“Spokane County offers the court no explanation—credible or otherwise—about why someone at Spokane County Detention Services made the intentional choice to preserve video from 8:43 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., yet chose to allow the portion from 9:15 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. to be permanently destroyed,” Dimke wrote in her decision.

The judge’s ruling doesn’t impact the medical negligence and civil rights violation claims against NaphCare and the nurse. The attorney for Hill’s estate argues she should have been seen by a primary care provider after complaining of abdominal pain. They also disagree with the nurse’s account of the interaction with Hill during their 3 p.m. meeting, saying it was not consistent with the pain she would have been suffering from the ruptured intestine.

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