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Editorial: Feds should begin civil rights probe into Metcalf's death in county jail

Not only did special prosecutor Lori Pettit Rieman fail to do her job in investigating the death of an Erie County jail inmate, but an email she sent creates suspicion that politics influenced the timing of her announcement. It’s rare to see such flagrant manipulation on such blatant display, especially in the top levels of law enforcement and in a case of preventable death.

The U.S. Justice Department has apparently not begun the civil rights investigation requested by the Commission of Correction. It should do so now, if only to reassure the public after Rieman’s miserable handling of the case.

The special prosecutor made up her mind in October not to lodge charges against any Erie County jail deputy in the Metcalf’s death. But she waited weeks, until after the November election, to make the announcement.

Her silence and her decision not to prosecute proved politically convenient for Sheriff Timothy Howard, who barely won re-election over Democratic opponent Bernie Tolbert. Rieman, also a Republican, won re-election but she had no opponent.

An Oct. 11 email to two State Police investigators revealed that Rieman had decided that the case was not criminally prosecutable. She wrote the email after a phone call from a Buffalo News reporter.

She wrote in her email: “Apparently, the sheriff is up for re-election and it would possibly (I doubt it though) affect that,” then added “I told him that prosecuting crimes is not a political event in my county.”

Two months went by. Election Day came and went. Only then did she announce her decision not to prosecute – after Howard was re-elected and after the statute of limitations on the two most likely criminal charges had expired, anyway.

Those charges were manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. Many lawyers not involved in the case agreed that a murder conviction would be unlikely. A civil lawsuit is underway.

Here is what is certain: The special prosecutor allowed the clock to run out on the case. She told Metcalf’s father that his son died a “completely preventable” death, but only after allowing a five-year statute of limitations to expire.

Deputies responded badly to a difficult situation. Poor leadership is surely one of the causes. When lawyers asked Sheriff Howard direct questions about various aspects on how deputies are trained he answered, “I don’t know” – 68 times. The transcript of that deposition was also withheld until after the election.

Howard often talks about personal responsibility, but it was missing on his part and that of his subordinates in this case. Is it any wonder that the state Commission of Correction found the Erie County Holding Center and the Erie County Correctional Facility among the worst local jails in the state?

It was late November in 2012. Metcalf had been in the Holding Center. He was, by all accounts, mentally unstable, spitting blood and out of control. Deputies tried to subdue him. The situation grew worse. A state panel found that poorly trained deputies placed a “spit mask” on him, too tightly and the wrong way. Metcalf couldn’t breathe. Jailhouse video shows the deputies placed a pillow case over his head and strapped him face down on a stretcher.

It got worse. The deputies prevented medics from examining Metcalf. The emergency workers were there to take Metcalf to a psychiatric evaluation. One of the medics noted the tightness of the strings of the mask. Metcalf was in full cardiac arrest.

Rieman’s Dec. 15 news release said no one would be charged. Her letter to the judge showed she was swayed by the State Police investigation and the county medical examiner’s finding in 2012: jail mistreatment and Metcalf’s own bad health brought on a heart attack.

The state Commission of Correction’s Medical Review Board determined Metcalf was asphyxiated. Rieman dismissed that finding, but she waited until after the November election to announce her decision. That may be mere coincidence, but it doesn't appear that way.

Federal prosecutors need to do the professional job that Rieman failed to do and that this case demands.

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