Inmate's death leaves questions

April 17, 2008 6:20:15 PM PDT
A mysterious death has a Houston widow demanding to know exactly what happened. Medical examiners now say her husband's death behind bars was a homicideIt's a part of new developments in a string of inmate deaths that the federal government is investigating. The sheriff's office sent Cherry Bradley her husband's belongings.

But four months after Clarence Freeman died following a fight with a jail guard, she doesn't know how it happened.

"I know I deserve an explanation," Bradley said. "Somebody needs to tell me what happened. What caused this? What's going to happen? What's going to be done to the people?"

Freeman was a state jail inmate who was transferred to the Harris County Jail as a witness in a murder case. On New Year's Day, the sheriff's department says Freeman got into a fight with a guard and elbowed him in the face. The guard had to get Freeman under control.

His widow wonders if the guard went too far.

Wednesday the Harris County Medical Examiner ruled Freeman's death a homicide saying he died from respiratory failure. His lungs were damaged after his neck was compressed. It sounds like some sort of choke hold.

"It's against policy to administer potentially fatal type choke holds and things if that nature," said Lt. John Legg with the Harris County Sheriff's Office. "Given that's been said, when you're engaged in an altercation and you're trying to protect your own safety, sometimes things evolve when you do what you can to protect your safety."

That's the rules generally, but the sheriff's office can't say anything about this case specifically. Despite having more than four months to finish their investigation, they are still working on it, so they can't or won't tell us any details.

The sheriff's office won't say if the detention officer admitted putting the inmate in a choke hold. They say Freeman was alert and taken from the jail clinic to LBJ Hospital only as a precaution, which makes it hard to explain why the inmate was unconscious and in need of a ventilator as soon as he got to the emergency room.

He never regained consciousness.

They won't explain why the detention officer has never been removed from his duty assignment, even pending the outcome the investigation. What's more, the sheriff's office won't even offer a deadline for the completion of the investigation.

With all that unanswered, Cherry Bradley isn't quite ready to put away her husband's belongings.

Cherry Bradley found out about the incident after a call from the hospital. She couldn't touch her husband until the day she told them to take him off life support. To make it worse for Freeman's widow, she showed us hospital bills the county is sending her. So far she has received $110,000 in bills to pay for his treatment. The Sheriff's office says it's not responsible for hospital billing.

Freeman is one of seven inmates who have died in Harris County Jail so far this year. The Harris County Jail is currently under investigation by the US Department of Justice. Federal investigators are looking at in-custody deaths and medical care among other issues.

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