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Mom seeks charges for Bridgewater State Hospital guards in son’s death

‘09 case sparked reforms

Lisa Brown, mother of Joshua Messier, a mental health patient who died at Bridgewater State Hospital, got signatures for petitions seeking an inquiry.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff.

Lisa Brown, mother of Joshua Messier, a mental health patient who died at Bridgewater State Hospital, got signatures for petitions seeking an inquiry.

The mother of Joshua Messier, the 23-year-old mental health patient whose 2009 death at Bridgewater State Hospital has sparked outrage and reforms, is demanding that prosecutors hold guards at the facility criminally responsible for her son’s death.

Lisa Brown appeared at a National Alliance on Mental Illness fund-raising walk in Boston’s Artesani Park Saturday to circulate a petition calling on prosecutors to convene a grand jury on her son’s death.

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“Martha Coakley needs to stand up and do this,” Brown said. “It’s on video. It shows them killing my son with excessive force. If we don’t hold these people accountable, it’s going to keep happening . . . He can’t die in vain.”

Responding to Brown’s comments, Coakley spokesman Christopher Loh said, “The death of Joshua Messier was a tragedy. We’re happy to speak with his mother about this case and hear her concerns.”

Messier died while strapped to a bed, as seven prison guards who had placed him in four-point restraints following a schizophrenic outburst looked on.

The death was originally ruled a homicide, but Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz never convened a grand jury, saying medical examiner Mindy J. Hull unofficially told investigators she had changed her findings and believed Messier was responsible for his own death because he resisted the guards. Cruz’s office did not immediately return a call seeking comment Saturday.

A Globe investigation found officials avoided creating written reports on the incident and sought multiple extensions of a deadline to produce a document justifying guards’ use of force on Messier.

Saturday, Brown and a group of supporters with clipboards worked the crowd of nearly 5,000 walkers, collecting names and signatures. Coakley has the authority to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the case. In addition, Cruz has the authority to reopen a criminal investigation and present the matter to a grand jury.

Many of those in attendance had heard Messier’s story; they offered Brown tearful hugs and stories of their own frustrating experiences with the state’s mental health system.

Brown said she is driven by the desire for justice in her son’s death and her wish to help others still incarcerated at the prison.

Brown said she is heartened that some good may come of recent publicity on Messier’s death, such as a class-action lawsuit filed this month seeking the release or transfer of 175 Bridgewater inmates.

“This is now being followed nationally,” said Howard Trachtman, the director of the alliance’s Boston chapter. “We’ve been doing what we can, but it’s definitely been slow.”

Brown has also taken solace in the words of strangers who reached out to her, some of whom became friends.

“She’s an inspiration to me,” said Betty Jenness, the parent of a mentally ill 11-year-old boy who befriended Brown through online messages after reading about Messier and helped collect signatures Saturday. “Her story struck a chord with me. I thought, ‘That’s going to be my boy if something doesn’t change.’ ”

But Brown deflects any praise.

“I’m not brave, I’m just doing what I have to,” she said. “I’m a warrior mom. I have to be there for my child.”

Following the Globe’s report, Governor Deval Patrick’s administration initiated disciplinary proceedings against three guards involved in the incident, fired an official who had overruled an internal report that cited two guards for misconduct, and formally reprimanded two other high-ranking Department of Correction officials.

During a visit to the Bridgewater facility this week, Patrick announced that a nationally recognized specialist would be hired to help reduce the prison’s use of seclusion and restraint. About 325 men are held in the facility.

Brown and Messier’s father are set to receive $3 million to settle a civil rights lawsuit they had filed against the state. As attorney general, Coakley represented the Department of Correction and eight of the nine guards who were defendants in the case.

But Brown called the settlement a “slap on the wrist” that would do little to deter the state from repeating its mistakes. Justice, she said, will only come when guards face criminal charges.

Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com. Find him on Twitter at @DanielAdams86.
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