Jail death disturbs mother
One autopsy blames a syndrome for her mentally ill son's death. The other points to violence.
By Abbie VanSickle
Published February 25, 2007
LAKE WALES - Gina Slone awakened to a loud knock. She eased herself into her wheelchair and peered into the predawn darkness. She saw deputies standing with a chaplain and guessed, rightly, that something terrible had happened to George.
Her son was 21. Suffering bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, James Lee "George" Griffin thought he was an angel, able to see God's face in an ordinary computer screen.
That's what he told a worker that March 2006 weekend at a Polk County jail, where he was taken after he threatened a man at a pancake restaurant.
He threw chili mac on the floor of his isolation cell and punched a glass window so hard that it cracked. Guards couldn't calm him, not the way his mother could.
They brought out the electric shield and used it repeatedly.
Now Slone screamed at them.
"You all done it," she said. "You all killed my son."
In the months ahead, others, including an independent medical examiner, would agree.
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He wasn't always that way, didn't always hear voices and believe he had wings. His mother remembers Griffin as a Tennessee boy growing up with an insatiable curiosity. That's why she nicknamed him "George."
Slone waited tables. Single, she could barely afford rent, much less Air Jordan sneakers.
She uprooted them to Florida for a man who didn't last.
Griffin quit high school freshman year and took a job cleaning pools. He declared himself the man of the house. Even after he moved in with his girlfriend, he gave money to Slone.
But when he turned 18, he seemed to come apart. He paced the floor of his room and cried for no reason.
One afternoon, he wandered off. Lake Wales police held him under the state's Baker Act, which allows law enforcement officers to take people involuntarily for psychiatric evaluation.
"Every few months we'd get him straightened out," recalls Slone, 40. "Something devastating would happen. It would kind of throw him in that mode, and he couldn't handle it."
She could calm him by just listening, though sometimes even that didn't help. In 2002, police reported that he threatened to hurt her. In 2003, he stole his stepsister's car.
A judge gave Griffin three years' probation. One part of probation was a 10 p.m. curfew.
He broke curfew on his last night of freedom, March 17.
A troubled night
Griffin quarreled that evening with his girlfriend. The power company had cut off their lights. Griffin pawned his video games to pay the bill.
He left in a huff and got a ride to his mother's home. About 3 a.m., he pedaled his bike to an International House of Pancakes on State Road 60 in Lake Wales, where he saw his mother's ex-boyfriend, Juan Nino.
Griffin looked troubled, Nino recalls. They sat down together, but Griffin wouldn't eat.
A man nearby poked fun at red-headed, ruddy-faced Griffin, calling him "Little Red Riding Hood." Griffin, furious, threatened to fight.
Nino warned the officer that Griffin had stopped taking his medicine. In a report, Officer Robert Hendrix noted that Griffin would be "cool," then suddenly "wig out."
Deputies put Griffin in a cell with other inmates at the jail in Bartow. He picked up a broom handle and waved it.
He was moved to a small isolation cell with a metal toilet, a thin green mattress and a thick blue door. Griffin spent March 18 and 19 there.
After he cracked the window, deputies feared he would harm himself, they told investigators.
Out came the shield
Seven deputies and three supervisors gathered outside the cell. The biggest, a man, carried an electric riot shield. Its shock should cause someone to jerk away, as if touching a hot stove, the manufacturer said.
When the deputy entered the cell, Griffin lunged, according to witnesses. The other deputies rushed in. An inmate said Griffin looked like he was doing push-ups with 10 men on his back.
"The deputies ran in on him and rammed him into the wall," inmate Kevin Missildine told investigators, though deputies disputed his account.
One deputy turned on the shield. Guards wondered if it was working because Griffin didn't seem to react, they said later, disagreeing over who shocked Griffin and how many times.
They shackled Griffin, using two pairs of handcuffs on his wrists because of his size, they said. He was 6 feet 2 and 269 pounds. They told investigators that they dragged him on his back by his feet to a nurse's station about 30 feet from the cell.
Detective Bobby Brigman, assigned to investigate the incident, described it this way:
"Griffin then started to flop around like a fish and kicking like a mule," he wrote. "Griffin was kicking his heels into the floor very hard."
Deputies shocked him again.
"For Griffin's safety, deputy Mayhue attempted to use the electric shield to Griffin's legs to get him to stop kicking," Brigman wrote.
Deputies rolled Griffin onto his stomach. They used another pair of shackles, chaining together his handcuffs and leg shackles.
He stopped moving. The nurse felt no pulse. Jail workers started CPR and called emergency crews. He was pronounced dead at 9:32 p.m.
Two medical examiners autopsied Griffin. Both board-licensed doctors, they reached very different conclusions.
Polk County Associate Medical Examiner Vera Volnikh noted blunt trauma to Griffin's wrists, ankles and skin. He had been shocked up to eight times, she wrote. But his injuries weren't severe enough to explain his death, she wrote.
Volnikh called the death accidental and attributed it to excited delirium syndrome, the sudden death of a person who is typically in a drug-induced, psychotic state affecting the heart. The syndrome is sometimes cited when inmates die after being shocked by Tasers.
Traces of cannabis, but no other drugs, were found in Griffin's urine.
The next exam was performed three weeks later by Dr. William R. Anderson, a former Orange County deputy medical examiner now in private practice.
He took the case at the request of Slone and her attorney, Benjamin Crump, who represented the family of a Panama City teen who died at a boot camp.
The doctor declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation. His report states that he found injuries to Griffin's torso, ankles, wrists and head.
Griffin died because his heart and lungs failed, the result of blunt force trauma, restraint and exposure to the riot shield, Anderson wrote.
Slone believed Anderson.
"I thought, oh yeah, that's the truth," she said. "I figured that one made more sense to me than the one from Polk County."
Investigations by the Polk County State Attorney's Office and the Sheriff's Office cleared deputies of wrongdoing. No one was disciplined, and no policies were changed, said Chief Steve Lester of the Sheriff's Office Detention Department.
The Sheriff's Office has not used a riot shield since the incident and switched shield vendors, Lester said, but he said that was unrelated to Griffin's death. The shield used on Griffin worked properly, he said.
Slone questioned the ability of Polk County law enforcement to investigate itself.
"You don't just fall over and die like that," she said. "I want to know what happened."
Crump gave the Sheriff's Office notice, as required by law, that he intends to sue. He expects to file in late March.
He said Griffin's case illustrates the need to improve how Florida deals with mental illness.
"Why be in the jail when you know you've got these mental problems?" Crump said.
Michele Saunders, executive director for Partners in Crisis, a mental health advocacy group, says it's a widespread problem.
"We're asking jails to do what they're not designed to do or equipped to do," she said.
All she knows
Slone tries to be patient while she waits for the case to get to court. She suffers from a nerve disease that steadily worsens, leaving her needing the wheelchair.
She lives with friends. After her son's death, she was evicted. She said she spent her rent money to bury him.
She keeps a thick binder of her son's gruesome autopsy photos.
"That's my proof," she said. "That's what I know. They can tell me all day long that what they did was justifiable. I just don't know how it's justifiable."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Abbie VanSickle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 226-3373.
A Polk County medical examiner attributed the death of James Lee "George" Griffin to excited delirium syndrome. The finding, controversial among forensic pathologists, is often used when people die after being shocked by Taser guns.
It is defined as the sudden death of a person, brought on by a psychotic and drug-induced state that disrupts the heart.
"There is not a firm diagnosis," said Dr. Martha Burt, a medical examiner and assistant professor at the University of Florida. "There's still a tremendous amount of controversy over whether it's a real syndrome."
In her report, Dr. Vera Volnikh, an associate medical examiner in Polk County, cited a book by Dr. Vincent DiMaio. DiMaio, a long-time Texas medical examiner and expert on the syndrome, said Griffin's case fits the usual scenario.
The person most susceptible to the syndrome has schizophrenia and has used drugs, he said. "It's kind of like pouring gasoline on fire," he said.
Griffin, who was bipolar and schizophrenic, had a history of using cocaine and methamphetamine, Volnikh said.
Neither was found in Griffin at the time of his death.
[Last modified February 25, 2007, 22:01:49]
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