Court orders retrial in jail suicide case

Posted: Sunday, July 15, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska Supreme Court, in a 3-2 ruling, has ordered a new trial on whether the state should pay damages for the suicide of a Nome man who hanged himself in jail.

The issue in the case revolved around whether the suicide was intentional, and if it was, whether that shields the state from all liability for the death.

Rudolph Joseph, 31, hanged himself in a jail cell at Nome's Anvil Mountain Correctional Center on May 11, 1996, a few hours after he was arrested for striking his cousin with a large rum bottle. Jailers noted that he was intoxicated when he arrived at the facility, and he was placed in a cell with a video camera.

An officer monitoring the camera noticed the lens was obscured, but Joseph's cell wasn't checked until 10 to 15 minutes later, when Joseph was found on the floor of his cell with a nylon cord around his neck. The cord, the drawstring from Joseph's sweat pants, hadn't been taken from him when he was admitted.

The man's parents sued, saying the state was negligent when it failed to take the nylon cord, and when it didn't monitor him adequately in his cell.

The state said Joseph ''died as a result of his own intentional actions.'' The jury agreed.

But the Supreme Court said the jury instructions were wrong in telling jurors not to consider any further issues they decided the suicide was intentional. ''Only if an intentional act of suicide was not reasonably foreseeable would it relieve the jailer of a duty to prevent that suicide,'' says the opinion written by Justice Robert Eastaugh.

The justices sent the case back for retrial, saying the new jury should receive instructions that allow it to consider other liability issues even if it concludes that Joseph acted intentionally.

The justices also said that the court erred in excluding from the jury panel anyone who had been charged with a criminal offense. But they ruled that the error wasn't enough to throw out the jury verdict on that basis alone.

Justices Warren Matthews and Walter L. Carpeneti dissented from the ruling.

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