Jailers fired, questions remain

July 11, 2008 9:25:22 PM PDT
Two jailers were fired from the Harris County Jail accused of lying about the death of an inmate. Critics say more needs to be done.

Hours before we told you about the latest turn in the death investigation, the deputy involved was fired. But it was not for using a choke hold that led to a death, but for lying to his department. Some say that's not enough.

Clarence Freeman died almost six months ago while in jail. Family and community activists say the sheriff's department needs to do more to police the jail.

All year, the sheriff's office has been caught in controversy and they say they're tired of it. Friday they got rid of two employees.

And over the past few months, we here at abc 13 have been keeping a closer eye on the jail. The pair was fired for lying about who knew what as a jailhouse fight was breaking out. The lie is a violation of policy discovered say investigators seven months after a man died from a choke hold. But investigators are still investigating the choke hold.

Seven months after Clarence Freeman died, his widow is encouraged by the firing of the detention officer who held Freeman in a choke hold. She says Nathan Hartfield losing his job isn't enough.

"I want to see the officers get what happens when you disobey the law," Bradley said.

The Freeman case is expected to be presented to a grand jury later this month. Those jurors will be able to see the statements we showed you showed you Thursday night. Statements in which Hartfield says he used a 45 second choke hold on Freeman after the inmate elbowed him inside the jail on New Year's Day. A statement from a witness who saw the choke hold and Freeman's own statement describing it.

It's been seven months since the statement was written. Seven months to either clear Nathan Hartfield of excessive force or pass the case on the district attorney's office.

"If I go out and took the life of a person, what happens to me," Bradley asked. "I stand before a judge, I stand before criminal justice. What makes this case any different?"

"You want some answers right away and you don't have nothing," said widow Sandy Gragert. "You don't the person you love and you don't have answers."

Sandy Gragert is proof that Clarence Freeman's case is not unique. She too is waiting for answers from the Harris County Sheriff's Internal Affairs squad.

It's been more than a year since a Harris County deputy shot Daryl Gragert through this windshield. His widow says she still doesn't know what happened and it's been way too long.

All Gragert knows about the death of her husband Daryl is from the news. The initial report was that he tried to run a deputy over, but it hasn't changed much since we reported last June.

"I haven't gotten no answers and it's been over a year and that's too long," she said.

When we checked all Harris County Internal Affairs investigations for the last two years, we found that six of 12 deaths in custody cases under review longer than a year. Two of them on going for 21 months and still no answer. On average it takes the department 380 days to decide if a deputy correctly used deadly force or close a death in custody case.

The sheriff's office didn't allow us to interview anyone within internal affairs to ask why. Meaning families just wait.

"One day I will be able to cope with it, one day," Bradley said.

Most of these internal affairs cases end with no finding of wrongdoing, but this delay affects every deputy accused and you too.

The deputies involved are under a cloud of suspicion and many times assigned to limited duty, costing taxpayer resources in the jail or on the streets of Harris County.

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