Multimillion-dollar verdict goes against (yawn) Sheriff Joe

Mar. 30, 2006 12:00 AM

I tell the attorney Michael Manning that unless I can figure out a way to tie immigration into the multimillion-dollar verdict he won against the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, I'm not sure that anyone will be interested in it.

Even though this is the second time in a decade that Manning had managed to help millions of dollars cross the border from Maricopa County to a client's pocket.

Even though Manning has four other wrongful-death suits pending that could cost the county tens of millions more.

"The timing of the verdict was unfortunate," he told me.

Last Friday, as the largest public demonstration in Arizona history filled miles of 24th Street and made immigration the dominant topic of the day, week and year, a federal grand jury awarded $9 million to the estate of Charles Agster III, a man with the mental capacity of a 13-year-old who died after a struggle with detention officers in the county jail. Agster was placed in a restraint chair, just as a man named Scott Norberg had been in 1996. Each man had been in jail for only minutes. Neither had been convicted of any crime. Both died. In 1999, the county's insurers paid $8.25 million to settle Norberg's case, which also was handled by Manning.

"During the Agster trial I hit hard that every citizen of Maricopa County who is arrested without being convicted has all his constitutional rights," Manning said. "Among them to be free of excessive force and to receive medical treatment. They understood that."

In 2001, when I first asked Arpaio about the similarities between Norberg's and Agster's deaths, he told me with great bluster, "There are no similarities . . . none."

On Wednesday, the chief of custody at the jail, Jerry Sheridan, said that the sheriff didn't want to discuss the Agster verdict, but that his office had decided that it would be appealed.

"Here's a guy (Agster) who comes to us, his body ravaged by methamphetamines," Sheridan said. "He's with us only minutes when he codes. But the sheriff, Joe Arpaio, is the bad guy."

Manning believes that Arpaio has created a mentality among jail employees that allows for excessive force. He points to what he calls "a string of federal court orders and appellate court opinions and consultant reports" that support his view.

Sheridan disagrees, arguing that the number of deaths in the jail is relatively small. "We've had over 1.5 million people come through the system since Joe Arpaio became sheriff," he said.

Still, Sheridan predicts that the Agster case and others could lead to changes.

"One of the things we may change is our acceptance criteria," he said. "I believe it's too low. Charles Agster should have been turned around and rejected from being booked by our staff and taken to the county hospital for medical treatment. It's probably the same case with Norberg."

On this, Manning would agree. He believes that such a policy should have been put in place years ago, but that county officials are kowtowed by Arpaio's popularity.

And why not? Over the years I've done a number of stories about people who have been carried out of the jail in body bags. The sheriff used to send me anchovy pizzas after those articles were published, as much to say thanks as to tease me. (He knows that I don't like anchovies.)

Wednesday afternoon Arpaio called to tell me about a new opinion poll that puts his current popularity rating at 77 percent.

"Every time you write about me my numbers go up," he said.

Reach Montini at (602) 444-8978 or Read his blog at

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