Crime & Courts

Family questions death of son jailed with mentally unsound cellmate

The family of a 19-year-old robbery suspect who is believed to have been killed by his cellmate in a San Bernardino County jail is asking why a young man with developmental disabilities was being housed with an accused murderer who was showing signs of mental incompetence.

Rashad Davis of Pomona died of blunt force injuries in May after he was found unresponsive on the floor of a cell he shared with Jeremiah Ajani Bell, 22, at the West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga. Bell was in jail, charged with beating a man to death with a baseball bat in what police described as a hate crime. Authorities said Bell had been looking to attack anyone who wasn't black.

Before Davis was killed, Bell's lawyer told the court he was concerned that Bell was mentally unfit to stand trial. The judge suspended criminal proceedings so that Bell could be evaluated by a psychiatrist. Bell is accused of killing Davis about three weeks later in the two-man cell they shared.

The death comes at a time when the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department has been under intense scrutiny over allegations of excessive force and lack of appropriate healthcare, including mental illness treatment, in its jails.

Since last year, the FBI has been investigating allegations of deputy misconduct at West Valley Detention Center. The nonprofit Prison Law Office is also investigating, and several federal lawsuits have been filed alleging problems at the jails.

The ACLU has also looked into allegations of excessive force at West Valley and earlier this year filed a lawsuit for information about the department's use of stun guns in the field and in jails.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Cindy Bachman declined to answer specific questions about Davis' death, including why he was in a cell with Bell.

She said department procedure is for inmates to be screened by nursing staff when they are booked and that a mental health professional would determine whether or not an inmate should be housed separately. She did not say whether this procedure was followed in Bell's case.

The department issued a short press release after Davis was killed, noting the date and time that Davis was found unresponsive. The statement said Davis was taken to a hospital in Fontana, where he was pronounced dead, and said investigators had determined Bell was responsible for the death.

Davis, who according to his family had attended schools for special needs youth all his life, was jailed in March on allegations of robbery and theft. He was accused of walking into a nail salon in Ontario with a knife and taking $140, said Ontario Police Det. Bill Russell.

Davis was also suspected of being involved in two petty thefts in the same area, Russell said.

Davis' parents said they worried about him as soon as he was jailed because he struggled with learning disabilities throughout this life. Compared with other young men his age, Davis was small — standing about 5 feet 4 and weighing about 100 pounds, his mother, Deandra Thomas Davis, said.

At the time he was killed, Davis' family had been working with his attorney to try to get him out of jail quickly, said his father, Rashad Davis. Davis' defense attorney had requested attention from a mental health doctor for her client, according to court records.

"While your privileges are taken away from you while you're in jail, it doesn't mean that you shouldn't be protected," Deandra Davis said. "I spent all of his life protecting him and taking care of him and looking out for him.… Then the minute that I have no control is when he's taken away from me."

Don Specter, executive director of the Prison Law Office, said the law firm began looking into San Bernardino County jails after it received numerous letters from inmates complaining about conditions. The investigation is ongoing, but so far the firm has identified problems with excessive force and lack of access to healthcare, including for mental health, he said.

The county has been cooperating with the investigation, Specter said.

The county recently allocated $3 million to provide additional mental health care services to inmates and has authorized the hiring of 10 additional correctional nurses and five sergeants, Bachman, the sheriff's spokeswoman, said in a statement.

County spokesman David Wert said Gov. Jerry Brown's realignment plan, which shifted some state prisoners to county jails, has increased pressures on local facilities.

"Many of the inmates who have been thrust upon us by the state are much more violent and 'prison-savvy' than those we and other counties are used to dealing with," Wert said in a statement. "Many of them also have greater medical and mental health needs than our traditional population.… The state did not pass along nearly enough funding for counties to accomplish this."

About two weeks after Davis was killed, Superior Court Judge Jon Ferguson declared that based on a psychiatrist's report, he had determined that Bell was not competent to stand trial. He ruled that, if need be, Bell should be involuntarily medicated by doctors.

"I've spoken to Mr. Bell a couple of times since his arrest on this case," Bell's attorney John Lueck told the court. "I was not able to have a meaningful discussion with him."

On June 24 the judge ordered Bell committed to a mental health treatment facility for up to three years.

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

Twitter: @palomaesquivel

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
71°