Governor Patrick called the death of 23-year old Joshua K. Messier “tragic” and “disgusting” and has finally taken some steps to hold state officials accountable for it. But justice and fairness demand more from Massachusetts.
Messier died in 2009 as guards attempted to restrain him at Bridgewater State Hospital, where he had been sent for a psychiatric evaluation. Five years later — after the Globe’s Michael Rezendes reported on the circumstances surrounding Messier’s death — Patrick formally reprimanded Correction Commissioner Luis S. Spencer. His public safety secretary, Andrea Cabral, called for the resignation of Assistant Deputy Commissioner Karen Hetherson, who overruled a 2011 Internal Affairs report that cited two of the guards for misconduct. Patrick placed three guards on paid administrative leave, and said at least two should face disciplinary proceedings for improper use of force.
But some evidence suggests Messier’s death is more than a tragedy and should be investigated as a crime.
A lack of hospital beds and other services for the chronically mentally ill has driven many to hospital emergency rooms and to jails. That’s what happend to Messier, a paranoid schizophrenic. After he was accused of assaulting staffers at a small community hospital near his home, misdemeanor assault and battery charges were filed against him, and a judge sent him to Bridgewater for a psychiatric evaluation.
Messier suffered a heart attack after guards pushed his chest almost to his knees, as they attempted to strap him down using a technique that is banned in Massachusetts. An autopsy also found evidence of a physical beating, including internal bleeding on Messier’s brain and blunt injuries to his neck, torso, arms, and legs. A medical examiner initially ruled the death a homicide, but later changed her mind. Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz told the Globe that’s why he never presented evidence in the case to a grand jury. Yet three subsequent investigations faulted the guards. One of those investigations — done by the Disabled Persons Protection Commission — found “sufficient evidence to conclude that [Messier’s] death was caused by the actions of two correctional officers” and recommended discipline “up to and including termination.”
This tragedy should galvanize change and progress in the treatment of the mentally ill. But first, Messier’s death deserves to be fully investigated as the crime it might be. There’s a six-year limit on filing manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter charges in Massachusetts, so time is of the essence. Cruz should reopen the case and seek full criminal accountability from the officers involved.