Choked out

Jail death ruled a "homicide," his family gets a $350,000 payout, but the deputies remain on the job despite the persistent efforts of a witness

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Issiah Downes, shown here in his last official mug shot, died while being restrained by Sheriff's deputies.
PHOTO COURTESY SF SHERIFF DEPARTMENT

news@sfbg.com

When a struggle occurs in jail, it happens behind closed doors where the only witnesses are usually on opposite sides of the law. And when a struggle between these adversaries results in death of an inmate, a lot of questions emerge, questions that can linger for years if not publicly addressed.

Three years ago, a 31-year old inmate named Issiah Downes died in a San Francisco jail cell following a confrontation with deputies. After a yearlong investigation, San Francisco Chief Medical Examiner Amy Hart determined the death was a homicide. Weeks later, Downes' mother Esther filed a wrongful death suit against the city, which was ultimately settled for $350,000, a significant sum that could have been even higher if she wasn't too ill to pursue a trial.

Yet the deputies involved remain on the job, working in the jail, with nobody ever punished for what at least one witness said was a homicide that should have had consequences for more than just city taxpayers.

According to the lawsuit, on September 7, 2009 Downes complained about the televisions in his unit being turned off. Deemed a disturbance, he was transferred to a segregated area of the jail. The transfer turned into a scuffle involving multiple deputies who forced Downes to the ground. He was then moved into a "safety cell" where another struggle broke out and he was held prone on the floor while deputies allegedly applied pressure to his back and neck. After complaining that he could not breathe, Downes lost consciousness and was soon declared dead.

The lawsuit named the deputies involved with restraining Downes as Mel Song, Juan Guitron, Edward Gutierrez, Ken Lomba, Kevin Macksound, and Dan White. No charges were pressed against anyone. What's more, the Sheriff Department's Communications Director Susan Fahey confirmed that all the deputies named as defendants in the civil suit are still employed by the department in the jail.

While the story has slowly faded from the headlines, one witness has been knocking on doors across San Francisco in an attempt to tell his version of events and bring some light to this man's murky death. Dennis Damato was in jail at the time and remembers it being a quiet day as he and other inmates watched college football. "Miami played Florida State," Damato told the Guardian. "I was on a top bunk at the end of the row."

From his bunk, Damato saw Downes step into the hallway outside the cell and he says Downes was not resisting deputies or being confrontational. "There was no commotion. This guy wasn't doing anything," says Damato, who saw a deputy approach and stand beside Downes. "He (Downes) was just standing there nice and quiet and [a deputy] was standing to his left. I did not see them communicate."

Damato says he looked away for a moment to check the score of the game and when he turned back, he saw the deputy attacking Downes, who was in handcuffs. "He was bent over, handcuffs in front of him, and the deputy had him in a choke hold," Damato told us. "Mr. Downes was saying he can't breathe. His eyes were bulging while being choked and brought down."

Damato says Downes was already on the floor when more deputies arrived to assist and roughly 15 minutes passed before they dragged Downes to a secluded room. Convinced that Issiah Downes was murdered, Damato has reached out to everyone from the DA's office to the Sheriff's Department but he says he was shut down at every turn: "They'd say 'it's over with. Go home.'"

The deputies could not be reached for comment because the Sheriff's Department didn't make them available or release their contact information as we requested.

After Downes' death the Medical Examiner's Office investigated and the subsequent report confirms that Downes suffered blunt trauma to his neck (in addition to his torso and extremities), consistent with Damato's claim that Downes was strangled.

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