Pasadena, Texas, population 152,000, is a suburban community in Harris County that falls on the outskirts of the greater Houston metropolitan area.
In the early morning of March 28, 2019, Pasadena police arrested 32-year-old Jamal Ali Shaw for public intoxication other than alcohol. He was booked into the Pasadena Jail without incident.
About four hours after his arrest, other prisoners alerted jail officials that Shaw was convulsing in his cell. He was having an epileptic seizure.
The jail officials that responded would later say that Shaw was “combative,” necessitating using a Taser to restrain him. A medical EMT team was summoned to the jail, and they performed CPR on him.
Shaw was taken to an area medical facility but was pronounced dead shortly after noon on March 29. The Pasadena Police Department, the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office, and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office all launched simultaneous investigations into the inmate’s death.
In an unusual move, the Pasadena Police Department filed a “custodial death report” with the Texas Attorney General’s Office instead of requesting a neutral investigation by the Texas Rangers as is the standard practice in such matters.
There were serious questions surrounding Shaw’s untimely death that begged an independent investigation.
Jail video evidence showed that two jail officials, Joanna Marroquin, and Ryan Whitehead, responded to Shaw’s immediate need for assistance. They moved all the other misdemeanor inmates out of the holding cell where Shaw had been placed. Marroquin called for emergency medical services. Marroquin and Whitehead then entered the cell where Shaw lay on his side, convulsing while foaming at the mouth. He then rolled on his back, when the two officials placed their hands on his shoulder and back as if to restrain him.
Whatever their intent was in applying the restraint, Shaw began to kick and roll, allegedly biting the two officials on their hands. Whitehead tried to restrain Shaw forcefully but could not, prompting Marroquin to remove her Taser from its holster. Over the next minute, she electro-shocked Shaw several times in his left side and leg.
Shaw managed to get away from Whitehead, get up, and walk to the toilet area of the cell. At that point, jail supervisor Darlene McCain entered the cell. Shaw reportedly moved toward Whitehead, who deployed his Taser, striking Shaw in the chest causing him to fall face-first on the concrete floor. McCain and Marroquin backed away as Whitehead continued to tase Shaw.
McCain then interceded, dragging Shaw to the center of the cell, at which point Whitehead tased Shaw again in the chest for several seconds while the inmate trashed about. All three officials were still trying to restrain Shaw when the EMTs arrived in an ambulance.
Before the EMTs could get to Shaw, a fourth jail official, Martin Aquirre, entered the cell and joined the restraining posse by pressing his knee into Shaw’s back. Two EMTs arrived with a gurney but were ordered by the jail officials to stand back while Aquirre was handcuffing Shaw’s hands behind his back.
Aquirre, Whitehead, and McCain held Shaw down while Marroquin went to get a “restraint chair.” A few moments later, Aquirre and Whitehead pulled Shaw up to escort him out of the cell. Shaw again fell to the floor when the EMTs suggested that Aquirre and Whitehead place the injured man on their medical gurney. They refused.
Once Marroquin returned with the restraint chair, Whitehead and Aquirre strapped Shaw into the chair and rolled him to the booking area, where the EMTs examined him. Over the next 17 minutes, the EMTs administered two shots to calm Shaw’s behavior. Shaw remained in the restraint chair, pleading, “help me,” and calling out to his mother.
Shaw was eventually removed from the restraint chair, placed on the gurney, and rolled to the ambulance, after which he was escorted to the hospital, where he died some six hours later.
In March 2021, the Estate of Jamal Ali Shaw filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Marroquin, Whitehead, Aquirre, and McCain. The U.S. District Court granted a motion by Aquirre to dismiss the case against him based on qualified immunity. One year later, the court dismissed the lawsuit against all four jail officials under the qualified immunity doctrine.
Shaw’s estate timely appealed that dismissal.
On July 21, 2023, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that dismissal order. The appeals court rejected the application of qualified immunity to McCain, Marroquin, and Whitehead for their use of excessive force and denial of medical treatment. The court found sufficient evidence in the lower court record to show that the three officials had violated Shaw’s “clearly established” rights not to be subjected to excessive force and to have adequate medical care.
The core issue involving these three officials is simple. They were responding to a “medical emergency,” not a situation where Shaw posed a danger to others. The three officials conceded that Shaw had been kind and respectful in the booking process, and the autopsy revealed he was not “intoxicated” at the time he experienced the medical emergency. Thus, there was no justifiable reason for the officers to immediately resort to excessive force in that medical emergency situation. As the court pointed out:
“Based on this record, nothing prevented the officers from deescalating, leaving the cell, and waiting for EMS to arrive. Plaintiffs’ corrections expert stated no reasonable jailer would enter the cell to initiate force against Shaw before the arrival of EMS; jailers should know not to restrain persons suffering an epileptic seizure; and jailers should recognize that any flailing of the victim’s limbs is not directed toward the jailers but is a result of the seizure. A jury could find that a reasonable officer in the Defendant-Officers’ position would have done little more than cushion Shaw’s head as they were trained to do.’
With respect to Aquirre’s action, the court also said he was not entitled to qualified immunity because his actions:
“… arguably delayed Shaw’s access to critical medical care. Furthermore, a reasonable inference could be made that, when Aguirre approached the cell, he knew Shaw was suffering from an epileptic seizure and was not attempting to attack or threaten anyone. Multiple officers were familiar with Shaw, and Shaw’s family had taken seizure medication to the jail for him more than once. Also, the other detainees in the cell immediately recognized Shaw was experiencing a seizure. Hence, one could infer that Aguirre acted unreasonably in applying force to, and doubly restraining, Shaw — a known seizure victim — when Shaw was already restrained or subdued, presented no threat to himself or others, and was not actively resisting restraint.”
This horrible incident is another of the scores of cases where a Black man is charged with a minor, non-violent misdemeanor offense only to be killed in police custody through excessive force or die in custody from deliberate medical neglect.
We hope a Harris County jury will see this tragedy in the same light and hold these four jail officials accountable for their unconstitutional and unlawful actions.