Seventh Circuit reverses Madison County jury verdict favoring jail guards

By Record News | Jul 18, 2017

CHICAGO – U.S. Seventh Circuit appellate judges reversed a jury verdict clearing Madison County jail guards of blame for a suicide attempt that has kept Reginald Pittman in a vegetative state for 10 years. 

On July 14, Justices Richard Posner and Michael Kanne ruled that District Judge Staci Yandle must hold a new trial for Robin Hamilton, Pittman’s mother. 

She alleges deliberate indifference against guards Randy Eaton and Matt Werner. 

Posner and Kanne held that at trial, Yandle should have enforced a stipulation to admit an interview of the only inmate near Pittman. 

Posner wrote that a stipulation is binding, “unless it creates manifest injustice or was made inadvertently or on the basis of a legal or a factual error.” 

Dissenting Justice Daniel Manion agreed with Yandle that no stipulation existed. 

“At best, the parties had an informal agreement relating to admission of evidence, the precise contours of which are disputed, and which was never presented to the district judge until day two of the trial,” he wrote. 

Pittman hanged himself with a blanket on Dec. 17, 2007, in a segregation unit, while facing a charge of aggravated discharge of a firearm. 

Three hours later, jailers interviewed adjacent inmate Bradley Banovz on videotape for 25 minutes. 

Hamilton sued Madison County and many individuals in 2008, claiming they failed to act on signs of suicide risk. 

District Judge David Herndon granted summary judgment to defendants in 2011. 

He wrote that what happened to Pittman was a tragedy but his claim required a higher showing of deliberate indifference. 

“The evidence demonstrates a long course of responsiveness to Pittman’s complaints,” Herndon wrote. 

He wrote that Pittman was housed in segregation because of disruptive and inappropriate behavior, not because of a known suicide risk. 

Hamilton moved to alter judgment, and Herndon denied the motion in 2012. 

Hamilton appealed and gained a partial victory in 2014, when Seventh Circuit judges ruled that she could take Eaton and Werner to trial. 

Justice Richard Cudahy wrote that from 2005 to 2010, there were 36 suicide attempts at Madison County jail. 

He wrote that a trier of fact could reasonably conclude that Eaton was aware that Pittman cried intermittently for hours the previous day, and that a trier of fact could reasonably conclude that Werner’s interaction with Pittman months earlier gave him an additional basis to assess the situation. 

The case returned to Herndon and bounced to new district judge Yandle. 

At trial in 2015, John Gilbert and Raven Akram, both of the Sandberg Phoenix firm, represented Eaton and Werner. 

Ross Anderson of East St. Louis represented Hamilton. 

Anderson called Banovz as the only witness testifying that Pittman requested intervention from Eaton or Werner on Dec. 17, 2007. 

The trial turned strange at that point, and transcripts remain under seal. 

According to Posner, Banovz was “a terrible witness at the trial, with poor recollection, an alternately hostile and flippant demeanor, and an inability to counter evidence of his criminal record harped on by defense counsel.” 

Posner wrote that Anderson started showing the video interview of Banovz from 2007. 

He wrote that the parties had agreed before trial that if Anderson put Banovz on the stand, the defense would not object to admission of the video. 

“Yet as soon as the video began, the defendants’ lawyer objected, and though he called the objection pro forma and said he knew the video would be played, for remember the stipulation, the district judge sustained the objection,” Posner wrote. 

Sealing of the transcript makes it impossible to identify the lawyer he meant. 

Posner wrote that twice more, plaintiff’s counsel moved to admit the video, and that twice more, Yandle sustained the objection. 

In Manion’s account, Anderson couldn’t explain to Yandle why she should allow the video other than a reference to a prior informal agreement. 

Manion wrote that Yandle asked what harm could come of excluding it, and Anderson said proper regulation of the court required admitting it. 

Manion wrote that Anderson didn’t try to make any showing that Banovz didn’t adequately recall the events he testified about. 

He wrote that Anderson failed to make any offer of proof other than to rely on what he termed a stipulation. 

He wrote that Yandle called it “some agreement that you allege existed,” to allow hearsay to come in without proper foundation. 

He wrote that she said, “It is clearly hearsay,” and she excluded the video. 

After jurors sided with Eaton and Werner, Hamilton moved for a new trial.  

Yandle denied it, writing that she permitted Banovz to testify as to the contents of the video on direct examination. 

Hamilton appealed and won. 

Posner wrote, “Banovz’s testimony was the lynchpin of the plaintiff’s case and the defendants had stipulated to the showing of the video.” 

He wrote that defense counsel gave no reason for retracting his agreement. 

“He just said that his clients had changed their minds – but so what?” he wrote. 

“Stipulations are not so easily set aside.” 

He found no indication that the video would have confused the jury, prejudiced the defendants, or prolonged the trial. 

“What is more, defense counsel told us at the oral argument that he thought the video actually strengthened the defense case, and though it did not, counsel’s statement took all the wind out of his sails,” Posner wrote. 

“For he would not have objected to the playing of the video at the trial had he thought it would strengthen the defense.

“He knew it would have weakened the defense.” 

He meant Timothy Sansone, of Sandberg Phoenix in St. Louis. 

Posner wrote that if Banovz is believed, Eaton’s failure to follow through constituted deliberate indifference to a danger he had reason to know was real. 

“On the videotape Banovz says that Werner thought Pittman was just joking about needing to see crisis, but at the trial, Werner’s deposition cast doubt on whether he was able to make such a judgment,” Posner wrote. 

He wrote that Eaton and Werner admitted not remembering their conversations with Pittman, “so their testimony was worthless.” 

“It was senseless to think that testimony by Banovz seven years after Pittman’s suicide attempt was as or more reliable than his recorded testimony made three hours after the attempt. 

“The case being close, showing the video to the jury could have resulted in a verdict for the plaintiff, and so the judge’s error was not harmless.” 

Manion found no error and wrote that if one occurred, it was harmless. 

He wrote that plaintiff’s only complaint is that Banovz was cagey and unreliable. 

“As plaintiff’s trial counsel noted at oral argument, the entire reason he took the case was the videotape,” Manion wrote. 

“But Banovz was still available as a witness. 

“Over eight days of trial, the jury concluded that the prison guards were credible when they claimed they followed prison procedure to the letter.”

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