January 31, 2013
Though the events were kept remarkably quiet for over two years, now plenty of revelations are coming out regarding the death of Christopher Mason Armstrong, a 21-year-old inmate who died after being strapped into a restraining chair in the old Guilford County
jail in Greensboro for extended periods of time during three days on and after Christmas Day, 2010.
The county paid out $475,000 to settle the wrongful death suit brought by Armstrong's family.
An investigation by the Guilford County
District Attorney's Office found no criminal wrongdoing, but there are still plenty of questions surrounding the death and the large payout.
The county hired Greensboro lawyer Bill Hill, an attorney with Frazier, Hill & Fury, to handle the case. Hill and Guilford County
Attorney Mark Payne both said this week that they believed it was in the best interest of the county to settle for $475,000 given the circumstances of Armstrong's death.
Detention officers who were handling Armstrong didn't make required entries in the jail's logbook as to when Armstrong was put in and taken out of the chair. Therefore, jail records indicate Armstrong was put in the restraining chair on Sunday morning, Dec. 26, 2010 and not released until 30 hours later, shortly before he died of blood clots in his lungs.
Hill, who has represented the Sheriff's Department several times before, was apparently chosen to represent Guilford County
because he specializes in law enforcement cases.
Hill said one of the unfair claims some are now making is that the county attempted to keep the Armstrong case "secret" to avoid negative publicity.
"The confidentiality clause in there is at the request of the family," Hill said. "The family very much wanted to keep it confidential."
Both Hill and Payne said that, since a local government was involved, everyone was aware that public records laws were in effect and that the family's wishes did not override those laws.
Hill said Armstrong's violent actions placed the county's detention officers in a very tough predicament.
"He was on suicide watch," Hill said of Armstrong.
Hill said that restraining an inmate in the chair is something the detention officers only do when absolutely necessary.
"The chair is the maximum restraint," Hill said. "It is the last resort and they don't like doing it."
Hill also said it's important to realize the difficult situation of the jail guards attempting to deal with someone who exhibited intent to harm himself, guards and inmates.
"They have the hardest job in the world, period," Hill said of detention officers. "The sheriff and his department are doing the best that they can."
According to Hill, the jail staff's main mistake had to do with simple record keeping.
"The issue is documentation," he said. "The records weren't kept as well as they should have been."
Hill added that the detention officers have an obligation to protect the safety of Armstrong, as well as to protect themselves and the inmates, and he added that, given Armstrong's threatening behavior, the officers really had no choice but to restrain him in the chair.
Payne, like Hill, said the $475,000 payment was reasonable given the facts of the case.
"I can say that if you take all the circumstances together, it was fair for both parties," Payne said.Guilford County
Sheriff BJ Barnes admitted that the jail records weren't kept properly, but he claims that's the only mistake his staff made.
In 2011, the Guilford County
District Attorney's Office looked into Armstrong's death, based on information provided by the Sheriff's Department, and decided not to prosecute anyone.
On Thursday, June 23, 2011 Chief Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann sent Barnes a letter that stated the District Attorney's Office would not file any charges on the matter.
"I have reviewed the materials provided [concerning Armstrong's death]" Neumann wrote. "These materials include Incident and Supplemental Reports, Use of Force Reports, Isolation/Segregation Checklists, all Jail Records pertaining to inmate Armstrong, Report of Autopsy by Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Jail Policy and Procedures for Use of Restraints, Photographs and Surveillance Videos of Holding Cell Area, handwritten notes of Det. Jones and other related materials.
"Based upon my review of these materials I find no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing associated with inmate Armstrong's death," he wrote. "While this is no doubt a tragic event I see no criminal responsibility on behalf of anyone involved."
This week, Neumann explained the decision.
"There was no evidence of an intentional act to inflict injury," he told The Rhinoceros Times.
The question on some people's minds, however, is whether Armstrong's death – however unintentional – resulted from negligence, which is also a type of crime.
Neumann also said it was difficult to specify any single reason for Armstrong's death.
"There was more than one factor of cause of death," Neumann said.
Payne said the 11 Guilford County
commissioners who agreed to settle the case for $475,000 didn't sign a confidentiality agreement, but they did consent in closed session to the settlement reached by Hill and the family. The terms were presented to the Board of Commissioners in a closed session in fall 2012, and the confidentiality clause was part of the settlement.
The Rhinoceros Times obtained a copy of the agreement.
The document, labeled "Settlement Agreement and Release," is dated Thursday, Nov. 1. It is signed by Terrell Williams, the administrator for Armstrong's estate, by Hill, and by Fred DeVore, the Charlotte-based personal injury attorney who handled the case for Armstrong's family.
DeVore, who is with DeVore, Acton & Stafford, did not respond to a voice mail left by The Rhinoceros Times. In a follow up call, DeVore's voicemail message stated that he was out of town working on a trial for two weeks starting Monday, Jan. 28, and an email to DeVore garnered an auto reply with the identical message.
The settlement agreement states: "TERRELL E. WILLIAMS, as Administrator of the Estate of CHRISTOPHER MASON ARMSTRONG, asserts a claim for the wrongful death of Christopher Armstrong against the Guilford County
Sheriff, Guilford County
Sheriff's Office and the County of Guilford, North Carolina."
It also states that, with the $475,000 payment by the county, the Armstrong estate and family members, "hereby completely release, acquit and forever discharge the [Sic] THE Guilford County
SHERIFF, THE Guilford County
SHERIFF'S OFFICE and THE COUNTY OF GUILFORD, NORTH CAROLINA and their respective past, present, and future commissioners, board members, elected and appointed officials [and all others in Guilford County
government] from all claims, demands, actions or causes of action whatsoever [related to the Armstrong case]."
One section in the agreement falls under the heading, "Mutual intent of all Parties to keep the terms of the settlement confidential."
It states that, for "the mutual best interests of all Parties, the Parties agree that the terms of this settlement shall, to the extent permissible and allowable under North Carolina law, be kept private and confidential. To the extent permissible and allowable by North Carolina law, the existence of this settlement agreement and the terms thereof shall not be disclosed to any third parties. Specifically, the Parties, their agents and their attorneys agree to not disclose the terms of said settlement except to the extent that it is necessary to disclose said terms in order to comply with the Public Records Laws of the State of North Carolina."...continued on page 2