Attorney General Martha Coakley said Wednesday that her office will review circumstances surrounding the 2009 death of a Bridgewater State Hospital patient, amid indications that the US attorney’s office is taking its own look at how Joshua K. Messier died.
Coakley, in a prepared statement, did not say whether she would seek a special prosecutor, as some have asked. But she expressed concern about Messier’s death and the treatment of mental health patients at Bridgewater.
“The circumstances of the death of Joshua Messier and the treatment of patients at Bridgewater, including the use of restraints and isolation, are deeply concerning,” Coakley said. “I believe they warrant a thorough review by our office and others to ensure that we are treating people with mental illness humanely and in a way that represents the best efforts to help them.”
Advocates for the mentally ill sent letters to Coakley Wednesday charging there was a government coverup of the circumstances surrounding the death of 23-year-old Messier, who succumbed as prison guards strapped him to a bed.
They noted that a state medical examiner ruled Messier’s death a homicide and that other investigators found that the guards violated department regulations and were responsible for his death. Yet Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz did not convene a grand jury to determine if criminal charges were warranted.
“We believe that a special prosecutor is necessary in the interest of justice and, frankly, to address widespread perceptions of a government whitewash,” said a letter signed by four prominent groups that advocate for the mentally ill and state prisoners. “Anything less than aggressive prosecution in Mr. Messier’s case undercuts protection for all.”
A separate letter written by attorneys for Lisa Brown , Joshua Messier’s mother, denounced Cruz as well as Department of Correction officials who “undertook conscious efforts to delay discovery of or conceal the true facts” regarding the death of her son.
The pressure on Coakley to name a special prosecutor comes as officials in US Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz’s office launch a preliminary investigation into Messier’s death, reviewing evidence produced in a civil lawsuit filed by Messier’s family.
Though Ortiz’s office would neither confirm nor deny the investigation, a person with direct knowledge of the matter said the review is being conducted by the Civil Rights Enforcement Division, a special unit created by Ortiz to enforce antidiscrimination laws, including those protecting persons with disabilities. The unit is equipped to prosecute both civil and criminal violations of federal law.
Cruz, in a lengthy statement issued Wednesday, said that his office had already conducted a second review of the medical evidence in the Messier case and had affirmed his 2010 decision to refrain from pursuing criminal charges.
“After a review of the facts and circumstances in this case, there is insufficient evidence to proceed on criminal charges against the corrections officers involved in the restraint of Joshua Messier,” Cruz said in the statement. “I have confidence in the investigators and prosecutors from my office and in the conclusions they reached in this matter.”
A spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which oversees the Department of Correction, pointed out that the agency recently conducted its own investigation into the death of Messier and disciplined several state employees involved in his care.
“The Department of Correction has taken steps to hold the appropriate individuals accountable for their actions, and has made a number of improvements to the department’s policies and training for the benefit of patients and staff at Bridgewater State Hospital,” the spokesman said.
Requests for appointment of a special prosecutor in the Messier case follow a February Boston Globe story recounting Messier’s May 4, 2009, death, much of it captured on surveillance videotape.
Almost five years later, the story noted, no guard involved in his death had been disciplined in any way. After the Globe report, Governor Deval Patrick suspended three guards with pay, pending disciplinary procedings, fired an assistant deputy commissioner, and issued reprimands to Commissioner Luis S. Spencer and Bridgewater Superintendent Robert Murphy.
Bridgewater State Hospital is a medium-security prison staffed by prison guards and clinicians, despite its name. It houses about 280 mental health patients, ranging from dangerous convicted criminals to those charged with minor crimes who have been committed for psychiatric evaluations.
The advocates calling on Coakley to appoint a special prosecutor in the Messier case include the Massachusetts chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness; the Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee; Prisoners’ Legal Services; and the Center for Public Representation.
Lisa Brown, in a separate statement, said: “For the past four years, I have used every means possible to try to hold those responsible for my son’s death accountable. It is now clear that the most senior officials of the Massachusetts Department of Correction, both past and present, have tried to cover up the horrible events of May 4, 2009.”
Roderick MacLeish Jr. and Stephen R. Delinsky, Brown’s attorneys, said Coakley cannot launch a criminal investigation on her own because she previously represented nine guards associated with Messier’s death in the civil lawsuit filed by Messier’s family. The state and a private company that provides medical and mental health services at Bridgewater settled the case for $3 million.
MacLeish and Delinsky urged Coakley to appoint a special prosecutor “who is not from Massachusetts and has expertise in investigating crimes committed by law enforcement or correctional officers in institutional settings.”
Coakley, a Democratic candidate for governor, has allied herself closely with mental health advocacy groups. She was the keynote speaker last year at an annual fund-raising walk for the National Alliance on Mental Illness and has publicly noted the 1996 suicide of a younger brother who suffered from depression.
So far, her defense of the guards in the Messier lawsuit has not become a major political issue, although independent candidate Jeff McCormick has twice urged her to name a special prosecutor to investigate Messier’s death.
Messier, a former University of Massachusetts Dartmouth student diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, was committed to Bridgewater for a psychiatric evaluation after staff from the psychiatric ward at a Worcester-area hospital filed misdemeanor assault and battery charges against him.
He had been at Bridgewater little more than a month when, after punching a guard, he was taken to a cell in Bridgewater’s Intensive Treatment Unit, where guards seated him on a small bed. While Messier’s hands were cuffed behind him, they pushed his back down, forcing his chest toward his knees. The technique, sometimes known as “suitcasing,” is forbidden by Department of Correction regulations because of the risk of suffocation.
A state medical examiner, Mindy J. Hull, officially concluded that Messier died of “cardiopulmonary arrest during physical restraint, with blunt impact of head and compression of chest, while in agitated state.”
In a statement to the Globe last year, Cruz said that Hull, during a private conversation with an assistant district attorney and State Police, had essentially reversed her findings, concluding that Messier’s own conduct had contributed to his death. On Wednesday, Cruz said that Hull, in her second private conversation with his investigators this spring, could not identify a specific action taken by guards that caused Messier’s death. He said Hull believed factors including Messier’s schizophrenia, his obesity, and “extreme state of agitation as he resisted the guards” all contributed to his demise.
But Messier’s attorneys noted that Hull’s official findings were “never amended or revised,” and that Hull “never confirmed the statements that are attributed to her by DA Cruz.” And they called the assertion that Messier’s actions may have contributed to his own death “utterly unfounded and outrageous.”
Hull’s autopsy, MacLeish and Delinsky noted, described blunt force injuries to nearly every part of Messier’s body, which the attorneys said were “consistent with a brutal beating by correction officers that must have occurred before Mr. Messier was brought to the ITU.”
The state Correction Officers Federated Union, which represents state prison guards, donated $500, the legal maximum, to Cruz’s reelection campaign in 2010, the same year Cruz decided against pursuing charges against the guards involved in Messier’s death.
Neither union president Jon N. Mograss nor Alan J. McDonald, an attorney who represents the union, responded to requests for comment.