Oklahoma County in May paid $1 million to settle a lawsuit over an inmate's death, court records show.
County commissioners approved the settlement of the civil case in Oklahoma City federal court. It will result in a small tax increase for Oklahoma County property owners, officials said.
Sheriff John Whetsel, who oversees jail operations, said, “While I can't comment on the specifics of the settlement, the commissioners acted in a manner believed best to protect the taxpayers of Oklahoma County.”
The inmate, Christopher Beckman, 34, of Choctaw, died in a hospital May 28, 2007, two days after a lengthy struggle with jail guards in his second floor cell, just outside his cell and inside a 13th floor jail medical clinic.
The concrete worker had been jailed early May 24, 2007, on driving under the influence and other minor complaints. The struggle began after he either suffered or faked a seizure, according to testimony at a former guard's criminal trial.
A state deputy chief medical examiner concluded Beckman died of blunt force head trauma.
His estate sued county commissioners, the sheriff, jail guards and the jail's former health care provider. In settling the lawsuit, the county and sheriff did not admit to any liability.
The estate reached a separate confidential settlement with the health care company, Correctional Healthcare Management of Oklahoma, court records show.
The property tax increase will be spread out over three years and be very small. County Treasurer Butch Freeman said, for instance, the owner of a $150,000 house will pay a dime more a year the next three years.
A federal judge ordered $110,387 of the county's settlement will go to the inmate's widow, $220,775 to his father and $220,775 to his mother. The judge said the family's attorney, Ed Abel, gets $400,000 in attorney fees from the county's settlement and another $48,060 in litigation expenses.
“I was privileged to be able to represent the Beckman family,” Abel said Sunday. “It's just a very sad event.”
The civil case had been on hold until after criminal cases connected to the death were completed.
In December 2009, a fired jail guard was acquitted at a criminal trial of any blame for Beckman's death. The guard had faced up to life in prison if he'd been convicted in the criminal case. The guard was accused of using excessive force against the handcuffed inmate in the jail's clinic.
Another former guard was sentenced to six months in prison for using excessive force on the inmate earlier in the struggle. A third former guard was sentenced to eight months in federal prison for lying to FBI agents, a federal grand jury and others about what happened.
In a statement Friday, Whetsel told The Oklahoman: “The sheriff's office has been very proactive regarding this case from the beginning. The FBI inquiry into this case was at my request and the former employees were handled through the legal process. My only focus was making sure that the truth prevailed regarding the death of Mr. Beckman.”