San Francisco considers settlement offer for family of dead inmate 

The City is close to approving a $350,000 settlement offer to the family of a mentally disabled jail inmate who died in 2009 after being forcibly taken to a safety cell after reportedly causing a disturbance.

The Board of Supervisors rules committee Thursday forwarded the settlement to the full board for final approval.

The mother of 31-year-old Issiah Downes had filed a $50 million wrongful-death lawsuit against The City, naming Sheriff Michael Hennessey and several jail supervisors and deputies.

Downes suffered from schizophrenia, and days after his arrest in March 2009 said he wanted to kill himself, and tried to gouge his own eye out, leaving him blind in that eye.

In the jail on the night of Sept. 7, 2009, in response to Downes’ loud complaints about the televisions being turned off in the unit, several deputies began transferring him to an administrative segregation cell. The Sheriff’s Department said Downes had become verbally disruptive and resisted the move.

Geri Green, the attorney for Downes’ family, alleged in the lawsuit that Downes had been complaining he could not breathe as deputies used forceful restraint procedures that involved placing their weight on his back and neck. Downes stood 6 feet tall and weighed more than 300 pounds.

A short time after being placed face-down in the safety cell, Downes was found to have stopped breathing.

"Mr. Downes, while handcuffed and shackled, died as a result of being asphyxiated by Sheriff’s deputies employing excessive force as well as illegal and unconstitutional restraint procedures," the lawsuit alleged.

The medical examiner later concluded the manner of death to have been homicide, and the cause was "probable respiratory arrest during prone restraint," coupled with Downes’ "morbid obesity."

The Sheriff’s Department has previously told reporters that "all department procedures were followed properly."

According to Green, Downes had never been physically combative with the deputies.

Downes, however, had prior convictions for involuntary manslaughter, robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and battery on a police officer, according to the Sheriff’s Department. His arrest in March was again for assault with a deadly weapon and for resisting arrest.

Green alleged that the department conspired to cover up the circumstances of Downes’ death.

Spokespeople for both the City Attorney’s Office, which proposed the settlement offer, and the Sheriff’s Department declined comment.

aburack@sfexaminer.com

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that San Francisco was close to approving a $350,000 settlement with Downes’ family. City officials were only authorizing the amount of a settlement offer, not finalizing a settlement in the case. The Examiner regrets the error.

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Ari Burack

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