A Palm Beach County grand jury issued a scathing report Friday after investigating the July death of an 18-year-old man who struck his head twice in a juvenile jail and exhibited visible signs of distress for more than six hours before he died of brain injuries.
Nine guards were fired at the Palm Beach Regional Detention Center in the aftermath of the death of Eric Perez, but the grand jury concluded no criminal charges could be filed against any of the guards because Florida law does not address a death caused by neglect in a juvenile jail.
The grand jury urged lawmakers to create new legislation to criminalize such a death of a youth being held in the custody of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.
"The grand jury evaluated the circumstances of Mr. Perez's death for possible criminal charges; however, the grand jury determined that no existing statute applied to the specific facts of the matter," prosecutors said in a statement. "The grand jury urges the Florida Legislature to enact a statute that criminalizes the neglect of anyone in the custody of the Department of Juvenile Justice."
DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters issued a statement following the release of the grand jury report saying the agency has "taken decisive steps to ensure such a tragedy from occurring again" and that the report will be reviewed to determine if further steps need to be taken.
"Eric's death has motivated us at DJJ to ensure we have proper policies and procedures and that our employees are effectively trained to follow them. As DJJ's leader, I pledge my utmost efforts to continue reforming this agency until it becomes the nation's role model for juvenile justice administration," Walters said.
The grand jury also made a number of recommendations to improve staff training and accountability for DJJ employees.
"Most notably, the DJJ staff made no attempts to secure medical intervention for almost six and a half hours after Mr. Perez exhibited obvious signs of physical distress," the grand jury wrote in its report.
A supervisor at the detention center was overheard saying he did not want to call 911 because it would create extra paperwork.
The officer on duty that night told the grand jury that "the supervising officer was overheard refusing other officers' suggestions to contact 911 because he wanted to avoid having to write [an] incident report. The grand jury finds this evidence very disturbing and may explain why – in the face of obvious signs of physical distress – no call to 911 was made or trip taken to the hospital to secure medical intervention."
The grand jury found that Perez died after suffering two hits to his head, but five medical experts were unable to determine if Perez's cerebral hemorrhage was caused by the blows to the head or if immediate medical help would have saved his life. Still, "Mr. Perez never had the chance to survive," the grand jury wrote.
One of the hits to his head came at the hands of guards, who were searching the inmates for contraband snacks about 8 p.m. on July 9 and picked Perez up by his head and feet and dropped him.
"As the search of Mr. Perez took place, he is roughly tossed in the air, striking the wall and/or floor with his head and/or shoulder as he came back down," the grand jury report says. "Security video in the cafeteria shows Mr. Perez to be unsteady on his feet after the fall."
Perez then appeared to be acting normal and was placed into his cell, where he began hallucinating and screaming "get it off me, get it off me," and kept repeating "it's going in my eye, it's going into my eye," according to the report. His cellmate called guards.
At that point, Perez was staggering around his cell and he had to crawl on the floor to be let out. He kept telling the guards that his head hurt.
"Mr. Perez then rose to his feet, using the wall for balance, before he stumbled forward, fell and appeared to strike his head on the comer of a table. The officers watched all of this, but did not intervene or physicaIIy help Mr. Perez," the report says.
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Guards placed Perez on a mattress on the floor, covered him with sheets and he appeared to fall asleep. Just before 2:30 in the morning on July 10, Perez rolled off the mattress and vomited and lost control of his bowels. Guards tried to lift him to his feet but he flopped into a sitting position.
A jail supervisor called the superintendent, who told the supervisor to call a nurse, even though there was no nurse on call. After roughly half an hour, Perez appeared to be asleep again. Security video shows guards spent more time cleaning up around Perez than actually monitoring his welfare.
"The grand jury heard testimony from an officer on duty that she overheard the supervisor state that he did not calI 911 because he thought the youth was faking and he did not want to fill out extra paperwork," the report says.
Guards placed Perez in a medical confinement cell, and checked on him
periodically – for an hour after he was dead.
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