DA: York County Prison staff didn't assault Everett Palmer, who died in custody

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

Everett Palmer Jr. wasn't assaulted, beaten or drugged during his two-day incarceration at York County Prison that ended with his death, according to York County District Attorney Dave Sunday.

The more-than-two-year search for answers as to how and why Palmer died on April 9, 2018, and who, if anyone, bore culpability, led to the empaneling of an investigating grand jury, he said.

The grand jury heard from 43 witnesses and reviewed hundreds of pages of medical records, among other evidence, to figure out how a seemingly fit man — a veteran, father, son and brother — ended up dead after banging his head against his cell door, intent on committing suicide, the DA said.

The grand jury, in its 174-page report, determined prison medical staff followed protocol.

Palmer "died a tragic and senseless death," Sunday said, adding his heart goes out to Palmer's family.

Palmer, 41, of Delaware, had binged on methamphetamine with a group of friends before being arrested by police in Lancaster County, who brought him to York County's central booking unit on an old DUI warrant, the DA said.

Palmer told prison staff he hadn't ingested any drugs, and those staff members had no reason to think otherwise, according to the grand jury's findings, Sunday said.

High meth level: But Palmer was actually "tweaking," according to the DA, meaning the level of meth in his system was so high he was acting irrationally. Those symptoms can mimic mental health issues, and prison officials put him on suicide watch because of his behavior, Sunday said.

The DA said it was reasonable for prison staff to conclude that Palmer was suffering from mental health issues.

"We watched the video surveillance footage of almost all of the time" Palmer was in the prison, "and the medical attention that followed," Sunday said.

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

There was no abusive or assaultive behavior toward Palmer by prison staff, he said.

Prison staff did a "cell extraction" to stop Palmer from hurting himself, and Palmer was placed in restraints, Sunday said — the use of which might have played a factor in his death since it increased the stress on his body.

But the DA noted that even if de-escalation techniques had been used instead, it's unclear whether Palmer would have survived.

The grand jury delivered 24 recommendations to try to ensure something similar doesn't happen again, Sunday said.

"The unbelievably tragic set of circumstances that resulted in Everett Palmer's death … was heartbreaking," he said.

Sunday said he shared the grand jury's findings with Palmer's family on Tuesday afternoon, immediately before his news conference.

Everett Palmer Jr.

Lawsuit pending: A wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Palmer's mother, Rose Palmer, in April 2020 in Harrisburg's federal court alleges he was drugged with methamphetamine by prison guards who then beat him and allowed him to die.

The lawsuit, which is still active, 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.

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 a 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.

'Rambling, incoherent': When medical staff went to his cell door to do a wellness check at 3:40 a.m. on 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.

That's when he was removed from his cell, officials said.

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.