Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr. faces monetary sanctions and other penalties after failing to preserve video evidence in the case of a 28-year-old woman who died at the Richmond City Justice Center in August 2014, the week the facility opened.
U.S. District Judge M. Hannah Lauck sided with Paige Jenkins, the mother of Erin Jenkins, in a ruling issued Saturday imposing sanctions on Woody, who oversees the city jail.
“Without the video, (Paige Jenkins) loses the best and most objective evidence of whatever happened on Aug. 1, 2014,” Lauck wrote.
Richmond attorney James Thorsen, who was not involved in the case, said sanctions are not handed down lightly, especially in federal court.
Tony Pham, the general counsel for Woody’s office, said he would defer comment until Woody is ready to address the matter. Woody could not be reached directly Thursday, and his voicemail was full.
The ruling is part of a $10 million lawsuit filed in June 2015 by Paige Jenkins, whose daughter died after an intestinal rupture. Defendants include Woody, deputies, a doctor and nurses who worked at the jail, and Correct Care Solutions, the company that at the time contracted to provide medical and mental health care services to inmates.
A settlement conference for the case has been scheduled for this morning in federal court, but it is closed to the public.
A lack of video has been central to another wrongful-death case in a Virginia jail. Hampton Roads Regional Jail officials initially said video outside the cell of Jamycheal Mitchell had been recorded over, even though an attorney representing Mitchell’s aunt had requested that it be preserved.
Mitchell, a mentally ill 24-year-old who died of weight loss and heart problems, had been accused of stealing $5 in snacks from a convenience store. Jail officials later reversed their claims that the footage no longer existed and released the last 12 hours of Mitchell’s life to the media and his family’s attorney.
It’s still unclear how the video was located, whether any more exists, and why officials said it had been recorded over.
In the Jenkins case, sanctions imposed by Lauck include monetary penalties, the reimbursement of fees to Paige Jenkins, and several restrictions placed on testimony and evidence if the case proceeds to trial.
The amount of money Woody’s office will be ordered to pay will be determined in a later hearing.
Woody also faces monetary penalties for failing to provide audio recordings to Paige Jenkins in a timely manner. He will have to reimburse her for her time and expenses, but the amount will be determined at a later date, too.
Thorsen, the Richmond attorney, said the sanctions send a message to sheriffs across the state that evidence should be preserved.
“It sends a message, and I think it’s a proper message,” Thorsen said.
Internal affairs investigations typically involve the review of video footage after an inmate dies, and it is almost always recorded onto a disc and kept indefinitely in the investigation file, according to testimony described in the ruling. But no one at the jail recalls watching footage taken outside Jenkins’ cell, and no one saved it.
Paige Jenkins hired a forensic specialist to dig through the jail’s video servers, but the footage could not be located.
In the new facility, footage was set up to be recorded over every 30 days. The jail received a Freedom of Information Act request from Paige Jenkins’ attorney to preserve evidence on Aug. 26 — 25 days after Erin Jenkins’ death.
Lauck argued that the video should have been preserved and that the jail should have assumed it would be critical evidence in the event a lawsuit was filed.
The court did not find that Woody intentionally allowed the video to be deleted, but Lauck noted that “some aspects of this record give this court significant pause.”
Many jail employees, she wrote, “demonstrated an unnerving lack of curiosity about viewing the video data,” “many employees seemed equally unconcerned about asking each other to do so,” and “some employees evinced surprisingly weak memories about important events (including whether they viewed the video).”
Erin Jenkins, the mother of a then-3-year-old girl, was arrested in July 2014 for driving with a suspended license and for possessing marijuana and a gun after she was pulled over for having a broken taillight. Her parents, Dale and Paige Jenkins, said the gun belonged to a friend of hers in the back seat.
Guards at the just-opened Richmond City Justice Center found Jenkins unresponsive, “ice-cold” and without a pulse in her cell two days after she was transferred away from the general population because she had been hallucinating.
The medical examiner in Richmond said Jenkins died because of an inflammation of the abdominal wall caused by a rupture in her intestines.
Jenkins did not have a history of mental illness, but her family believes the jail mistook her hallucinations as a mental health issue rather than a medical emergency. Paige Jenkins alleges that jail staff members ignored her daughter for hours instead of seeking medical attention.
The corrections officer watching her that day gave conflicting accounts of Erin Jenkins’ state, according to Lauck’s ruling. The video, she wrote, would have shown exactly what happened.
Lauck pointed out that Woody himself acknowledged the importance of video evidence.
“And so it’s a — sort of a truth serum,” Woody told the court. “It’s been very, very helpful to us employment-wise, as well as safety-wise, and for the residents, when they file grievances, and just a real live thing of what’s happening, what — what really happened.”