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Feds 'monitoring' jailhouse death probe

Register • Jun 29, 2014 at 10:55 AM

The U.S. Justice Department is "monitoring" Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine's investigation into the 2007 jailhouse death of Craig Burdine in Sandusky County, according to an email from a Justice Department spokeswoman. 

The Register sought review by experts of complaints and lawsuits filed by multiple families who've contended Sandusky County law enforcement officials mishandled criminal investigations involving their family members, including Burdine's family.

DeWine's office, the Justice Department's civil rights division, civil rights attorneys and other legal experts were contacted by the Register and asked to review information provided by the families and included in news articles published by the Register over the last several years.   

DeWine's office replied to the inquiry that it did not have jurisdictional authority over most of the issues the families raised.

DeWine also insisted his investigation into Burdine's death at the Sandusky County Jail, which is the only criminal investigation ever conducted after Burdine died in 2007, has been thorough.

DeWine's lead prosecutor, Matt Donahue, started grand jury hearings May 6, and he is scheduled to return for another jury session Tuesday.

Some witnesses were not contacted, however, during DeWine's seven-month investigation prior to the decision to go with a grand jury. The Burdine family has told the Register they fear DeWine and Donahue are whitewashing the evidence being presented to grand jurors because DeWine does not want the grand jury to return criminal indictments against local officials. 

Donahue has called few, if any eyewitnesses who were at the jail the night Craig Burdine died to testify, including the Fremont police officers who arrested Burdine, and the jail guards and supervisors, EMTs and others with him after he was taken inside the jail. 

Burdine was still handcuffed and shackled when a jail guard repeatedly employed a Taser to his body. He died just minutes after being dragged into the jail from a police cruiser. Burdine appears to be just semi-conscious or already unconscious In all the surveillance video made available from police cruisers and the jail.

Lucas County deputy coroner Cynthia Beisser determined Craig Burdine's death was self-inflicted as a result of drug and alcohol intoxication and a condition known as excited delirium. 

Famed forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden reviewed the medical reports and determined Burdine died due to injuries to his neck and a compressed airway during the struggle with guards and police officers just before he died. 

Baden also said the blood and alcohol levels in Burdine's system were far too low to cause intoxification or excited delirium. 

Donahue has not called Beisser or Baden to testify. 

The U.S. Justice Department did not initially provide a response to the Register's request for comment, but on Thursday did reply in an email. 

"We are monitoring the state’s investigation but cannot comment further," a spokeswoman for the Justice Department wrote the Register. 

It's not the first time the Justice Department has looked at a local jailhouse death in which Beisser performed the autopsy. A previous federal investigation forced her to change her ruling in a killing at the Lucas County Jail. 

Beisser also found no wrongdoing in that case but Justice Department investigators determined evidence and witness statements related to the death of Carlton Benton were overlooked.

Benton, a 25-year-old Toledo man, died at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center in June 2004 after he was strangled by a deputy’s sleeper hold while at the Lucas County jail, the Justice Department investigation determined.

Beisser ruled Benton died of a seizure disorder associated with the use of an antidepressant drug.

Justice Department investigators Interviewed four witnesses who came forward and later testified they saw a jail guard put a choke hold on Benton and then saw Benton’s body go limp. Their statements weren’t included in the official reports provided by the sheriff’s office for Beisser back in 2004. Beisser said her previous ruling was “nebulous” without that information.

That federal investigation determined the Lucas County sheriff and corrections officers gave false information about what happened to Benton.

In 2010 — six years after she ruled Benton died of natural causes — Beisser was forced to correct the death certificate to read “homicide.” 

DeWine declined comment about the Justice Department's interest in the Burdine investigation. His spokesman, Dan Tierney, said the office did not previously know about it. 

"Our office contacted federal authorities with jurisdiction over Sandusky County ... and no one was aware of any open investigation or active monitoring of the Burdine case," Tierney wrote in an email to the Register late Friday.

The statement from the Justice Department spokeswoman looked similar to a "very routine 'form letter' response to a public inquiry," Tienry said. 

"It does not seem to indicate that the Burdine case is under what most people consider 'federal monitoring,' which involves the appointment of a federal monitor or the establishment of a consent decree between the U.S. Department of Justice and a government agency."

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