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Lawsuit alleges murder, widespread cover-up in York prison inmate death

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

A wrongful-death lawsuit filed in Harrisburg's federal court last week by the family of Everett Palmer Jr. alleges he was drugged with methamphetamine by prison guards who then beat him and allowed him to die.

The lawsuit claims that after the 41-year-old Palmer's death, a number of York County officials and others conspired to cover up the circumstances around it.

Filed April 1 by Palmer's mother, Rose Palmer of New York, the lawsuit names as defendants three dozen people, including 20 "John Does" — 10 corrections officers; five members of PrimeCare Medical, the private company that handles medical services in the prison; and five corporations that have provided equipment to the prison including spit hoods, Tasers and "yet to be identified restraint devices."

In addition to naming York County Prison, its prison board and Warden Clair Doll as defendants, the lawsuit also names District Attorney Dave Sunday, Coroner Pam Gay, Sheriff Rich Keuerleber, President Common Pleas Judge Joseph C. Adams, the three current county commissioners, two county solicitors, the county controller, the Allentown forensic pathologist who conducted Palmer's autopsy and Forensic Pathology Associates, the private company that employs the pathologist.

York County spokesman Mark Walters said the county cannot comment on pending litigation.

Grand jury probe: The lawsuit also states that the district attorney's office refused to provide Palmer's family with investigative materials related to his death, except to say that grand jury proceedings are ongoing and that the case remains under investigation.

Kyle King, spokesman for the district attorney's office, on Tuesday said he cannot confirm the existence of an investigating grand jury in the Palmer case.

A photo of Everett Palmer Jr. is displayed on a sign during a press conference at the York County Judicial Center Monday, July 23, 2018. Family members and legal counsel are seeking information regarding the death of the Palmer while he was in custody at York County Prison last April. Bill Kalina photo

The lawsuit claims that "shortly after" Palmer's death, York County Commissioners Julie Wheeler, Doug Hoke and Ron Smith conspired with Sunday, Doll, and county solicitors Michelle Pokrifka and Don Reihart, as well as with privately employed forensic pathologist Dr. Rameen Starling-Roney, "to cover-up the murder of Everett Palmer by York County Prison Guards John Doe 1-10 and intentionally prevented and/or delayed the release of any information related to Mr. Palmer's death until after the statute of limitations period had passed."

Of the three York County commissioners named in the lawsuit, only Hoke was an elected official shortly after Palmer's April 9, 2018, death. Wheeler and Smith took office this year; the other two commissioners in 2018 were Susan Byrnes and Chris Reilly.

The lawsuit claims the manner of Palmer's death should have been ruled a homicide rather than undetermined, as it was, and maintains that purported failure was part of the conspiracy.

Toxic level of meth: At the time of Palmer's death, he had a high level of meth in his system and had been held in a one-person prison cell for two days, meaning he somehow ingested the drug while locked up, the lawsuit claims.

Corrections officers "drugged him, beat him, choked him, tased him, restrained him and failed to obtain necessary and timely medical care all contributing to and causing his untimely and unnatural death," the lawsuit claims.

A photo of Everett Palmer Jr. is displayed on a sign during a press conference at the York County Judicial Center Monday, July 23, 2018. Family members and legal counsel are seeking information regarding the death of the Palmer while he was in custody at York County Prison last April. Bill Kalina photo

It was obvious that, following "the drugging of Everett Palmer," he needed immediate medical treatment because he was mentally unstable and/or disoriented, but PrimeCare medical staff took no action to help him, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit claims the prison has "a long history" of guards trafficking illegal drugs into the facility, and that the warden and prison board "either actively encourage the behavior by overlooking the trafficking or are completely incompetent to stop the known illicit conduct."

As an example, the suit maintains an inmate overdosed there on Jan. 23, and that Warden Doll maintains the inmate had smuggled in the drugs himself despite having been in custody for 49 days.

"The widespread custom of excessive force and inmate abuse was ratified and tolerated by York County and the York County Prison Board," according to the lawsuit, and "was a moving force" behind Palmer's death.

The background: Palmer, of Seaford, Delaware, died in York Hospital of "complications following an excited state, associated with methamphetamine toxicity, during physical restraint," with "probable sickling red cell disorder" as a contributing factor, according to the 22-page autopsy report from Forensic Pathology Associates in Allentown.

The official autopsy report states that when Palmer was admitted to York County Prison on April 7, 2018, he was "reportedly rambling and stated that he had suicidal thoughts."

Palmer was evaluated by nursing staff when he arrived, then "placed in a single person cell on constant watch as a suicide risk based on the results of his intake psychological evaluation," the report states.

According to the autopsy report, prison records show that medical staff checked on him multiple times over the two days.

Family members of Everett Palmer Jr., from left, Palmer's brother Lamar, mother Rose and brother Dwayne, speak during a news conference at the York County Judicial Center on Monday, July 23, 2018. Family members and legal counsel are seeking information regarding the death of the Palmer while he was in custody at York County Prison in April. Bill Kalina photo

'Rambling, incoherent': When medical staff went to his cell door to do a wellness check at 3:40 a.m. April 9, 2018 — less than two hours before Palmer's death — he "was kneeling behind the cell door and covered the door with his mattress; he was reportedly rambling, incoherent and did not respond to medical staff," the autopsy report states. "He eventually responded to correctional staff and the mattress was removed."

About 25 minutes later, Palmer was seen hitting his head on the Plexiglas portion of his cell door, according to the report, which states that although the window had a Plexiglas cover, there was a metal plate on the wall with a sharp corner to it.

A correctional officer ordered Palmer to lie down and put his arms behind his back, but he did not comply, the report states. Other guards were called for backup, at which point it was noted that Palmer had cuts and a possible puncture wound to the back of his head, the report states.

One guard, holding a tactical shield, opened the cell door, and a second shocked Palmer with a Taser, which had no effect on Palmer, according to the report.

After Palmer was tased a second time, officers entered his cell, "initially pinned him to the bunk using the shield" and got him to the floor, according to the report.

"During this time the decedent continued to struggle (including kicking and attempts at biting); the officers secured the decedent by various physical control techniques including securing his mid-section and lower extremities, securing his hand by applying the mandibular angle pressure point, applying shackles to his lower extremities and applying handcuffs to his wrists," according to the autopsy report.

'Spit hood': Correctional officers then put a "spit hood" over his head to prevent him from spitting or biting, according to the report.

"The officers lifted him out of the cell and into the restraint chair and applied the lap belt, leg restraints and hand restraints (in that order). Video footage of the events inside of the decedent's cell did not give a clear picture of the in-cell restraint process until the decedent was fully restrained in the cell," according to the report.

The video footage indicates five guards were in Palmer's prison cell trying to restrain him, the report states. After restraining Palmer, they carried him out of his cell at 4:24 a.m.; he was in the prison's medical unit five minutes later, according to the autopsy report.

"He did not move and was unresponsive to light and smelling salts per video footage," the report states. "The decedent was removed from the restraint chair onto the floor at 0438 hours. ... Cardiac compressions were started by staff members at 0443 hours and continued by EMS upon their arrival."

Palmer was transported to York Hospital about 5:05 a.m., the report states. He was pronounced dead at 5:46 a.m., according to the report.

The report indicates that although Palmer had extensive bruising to his head, those injuries did not contribute to his death.

Palmer, who was 6-feet-2 and weighed 222 pounds, suffered abrasions and cuts to multiple areas of his forehead and scalp as well as bruising to his extremities, left hip and left side of his torso, according to the report.

Not intentional? A forensic pathologist in New York City hired by Palmer's family to review official autopsy findings has said he agrees with Coroner Gay's ruling on cause of death but disagrees with her current finding of "undetermined" for manner of death. Gay has said that ruling can be changed, depending on what the investigation determines.

Dr. Zhongxue Hua has told The York Dispatch that he believes the manner of death should be homicide, but he noted that doesn't mean prison guards intended to harm Palmer.

"I would be the first one to say that (they) never tried to kill this person," he said.

Hua also said that just because a case is ruled a homicide doesn't mean someone intentionally tried to kill a decedent. Homicides can be the result of unintentional actions, the physician said.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.