Three former guards at Bridgewater State Hospital will face charges of involuntary manslaughter and civil rights violations in the 2009 death of a young patient with schizophrenia, after a grand jury on Thursday reversed a six-year-old decision not to seek criminal charges.
The former correction officers — Derek Howard, John C. Raposo, and George A. Billadeau — were fired last year by Governor Deval Patrick after the Globe revealed that Bridgewater officials had violated a half-dozen laws, regulations, and policies in the death of Joshua K. Messier as Messier was forcefully strapped to a bed. The episode was caught on videotape.
Although Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz declined to bring criminal charges following Messier’s death, special prosecutor Martin F. Murphy said that he decided to seek the charges after conducting his own six-month review.
On Thursday morning, a statewide grand jury sitting in Suffolk County indicted Howard and Raposo on charges of using excessive force, while Billadeau, the supervisor, was indicted for allegedly failing to prevent the abuse, Murphy said in an interview.
Murphy said Howard and Raposo caused the 23-year-old Messier’s death, but that prison guards should never have been in charge of caring for severely mentally ill men. Despite its name, Bridgewater State Hospital is a medium-security prison, not a hospital.
“A system that places correctional officers in charge of mentally ill patients never convicted of a crime is a recipe for disaster,” said Murphy. “It’s not fair to the patients and it’s not fair to the guards.”
Messier was sent to Bridgewater for a psychiatric evaluation after staff at a private hospital near Worcester charged him with misdemeanor assault and battery. A month later, on May 4, 2009, he was dead. Prison video showed that Howard and Raposo “suitcased” Messier, pushing down on his back until his chest touched his knees while his hands were cuffed behind his back, contributing to what an autopsy concluded was heart failure.
The state medical examiner found that Messier’s death was a homicide and the video showed both that guards had handled him roughly and that clinicians had delayed crucial life-saving procedures.
Five years after Cruz’s decision not to pursue criminal charges, Attorney General Martha Coakley tapped Murphy to take a second look at the Messier case after it erupted into a major scandal in 2014, ultimately leading to the firing of state Correction Commissioner Luis S. Spencer. Murphy, in turn, requested a judicial inquest in which Judge Mark S. Coven reviewed the facts of the case.
Lisa Brown, Messier’s mother, said she was gratified by the results of Murphy’s investigation but also criticized state officials for providing treatment for her son in a prison, rather than a mental health facility.
“I’m grateful to special prosecutor Murphy for his pursuit of these charges,” Brown said. “While today is an important first step, there’s simply no moral basis to put innocent mentally ill men like my son Joshua into a correctional institution. It was and always will be wrong.”
Roderick MacLeish Jr., an attorney with the firm Clark, Hunt, Ahern and Embry who is representing Brown, said the special measures that were required to indict the guards underscore the difficulty of bringing charges against accused law enforcement officials.
“The Herculean efforts that have gone into this case amply demonstrate how difficult it is to hold law enforcement and correction officers to the same standards under the law as those applicable to ordinary citizens,” he said.
But Kenneth H. Anderson, an attorney representing Howard, said the guards were treated unfairly by Coakley’s office, which initially defended them in a civil lawsuit filed by Messier’s mother and father. Coakley’s office allowed the guards to give sworn pretrial testimony in the case, which Anderson said was then used against them during Murphy’s criminal investigation.
“That is simply fundamentally unfair and will be the basis of a motion to dismiss in the near future,” Anderson said.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and a private mental health care provider, the Massachusetts Partnership for Correctional Healthcare, agreed to pay Messier’s parents $3 million to settle their lawsuit, but the lawyer who negotiated the deal said the pain lingers.
“It’s difficult to grapple with the fact that your son’s death might have been the result of criminal action,” said Benjamin R. Novotny, an attorney at Lubin & Meyer.
The indictments, which came three days before the statute of limitations for pursuing manslaughter charges was set to expire, are a rebuke to Cruz, who defended his actions on Thursday. Cruz said he had conducted “two exhaustive investigations” into Messier’s death, concluding each time that criminal charges were unwarranted.
“I remain confident in the hard work my office did to arrive at a fair and just outcome in the investigation of the tragic death of Joshua Messier,” Cruz said in a news release.
Previously, Cruz has said he based his decision not to pursue charges against the guards on a private interview between his investigators and the state medical examiner in the case, Mindy J. Hull.
Cruz’s office said Hull had changed her mind about the case and had come to believe that Messier was responsible for his own death, citing the fight he started with the guards. But the medical examiner’s office refused to comment on Cruz’s assertion and never amended Hull’s finding that Messier’s death was a homicide.
Coakley appointed Murphy in August after four prominent groups that advocate for persons who are mentally ill formally asked her to name a special prosecutor, accusing state officials of presiding over “a whitewash” of the circumstances surrounding Messier’s death. The Globe had reported that Department of Correction officials covered up the results of their own internal affairs investigation, which cited two of the guards for misconduct.
Cruz immediately denounced the appointment, but Murphy proceeded with his investigation, which was underwritten by his law firm, Foley Hoag. In January, he took the unusual step of calling for a judicial inquest into Messier’s death, which set the stage for Thursday’s grand jury indictments.
Inquests are used only on rare occasions to investigate homicides involving unusual circumstances. But Coven has now presided over three of the proceedings, including the inquest into the 1986 shotgun death of the brother of onetime Braintree resident Amy Bishop.
Coven’s report on the Messier case and a transcript of the inquest will remain sealed for 10 days, to allow direct parties in the case to review the contents privately.
Murphy said that, if convicted, Howard, Raposo and Billadeau each face maximum penalties of 20 years in prison on the manslaughter charges and 10 years on the civil rights charges, although a trial judge could issue much lighter sentences.
“The charges contained in the indictments are merely accusations,” Murphy said in a prepared statement, “and each defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.”
On Thursday, newly named Public Safety Secretary Dan Bennett noted that the scandal at Bridgewater over Messier’s death has prompted reforms, including new training for prison guards.
“While nothing will ever erase the tremendous pain his loved ones have suffered, the changes that followed brought critical awareness of the unique protocols required in managing those in custody who have a serious mental illness,” Bennett said.
Related coverage:michael.rezendes@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeRezendes.