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U.S. News: Missouri county to pay $1.2 million to settle lawsuit over inmate restraint chair death

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Updated 2:01 PM EST, December 12, 2023

Missouri’s second-largest county will pay a $1.2 million settlement to the parents of a 21-year-old man with mental health concerns who, according to a lawsuit, screamed “I can’t breathe” as he was subdued by jail staff before dying in a restraint chair.

The Jackson County Legislature in Kansas City on Monday approved the settlement in the 2021 death of Marquis Wagner. John Picerno, the attorney for Wagner’s parents, said jail surveillance captured the events leading up to Wagner’s death. That video has not been made public.

The lawsuit named three jail guards and two companies that the county contracts with for health care. The settlement is only with Jackson County. The case involving the two companies is scheduled for trial in September.

Wagner was arrested Dec. 9, 2021, and accused of shooting through the door of his Kansas City apartment because he thought someone was breaking in. Police determined no one was trying to get into the apartment. Wagner told officers at the time that he had not slept for several days and was seeing demons. He also was in the process of detoxing from alcohol, the lawsuit stated.

Wagner was booked to the Jackson County Detention Center intake lobby around 11 a.m. Dec. 10. The lawsuit filed a year ago said he was not given a mental health evaluation despite evidence of mental health distress.

Instead, according to the lawsuit, Wagner was left alone in a cell without food or water for eight hours. During that time he exhibited strange behavior such as speaking to nonexistent people and eating toilet paper from the floor, the lawsuit said.

That evening, several jail staff members entered the cell and subdued Wagner. “He screamed ‘I can’t breathe,’ and he ‘felt like he was on fire’ and that ‘he was going to die,’” the lawsuit stated.

Wagner was handcuffed and put into a “suicide smock,” clothing aimed at keeping the inmate from harming himself. He was then strapped to a restraint chair, where he again expressed that he was having trouble breathing, the lawsuit states.

Wagner was taken to a nurse’s station, but no one examined him before he was taken back to a holding cell, the lawsuit said. The surveillance video indicated that he appeared to lose consciousness about 30 minutes later, but no one checked on him and he was transported to another cell while apparently unconscious, according to the lawsuit.

Eventually, it was determined that Wagner wasn’t breathing. Attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful. Paramedics took him to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forte said in a statement that the “safety, security and wellness of all remain a priority” at the jail, but declined further comment, citing the ongoing litigation, a spokesperson said.

Picerno also represented the family of Richard Degraffenreid, who died in 2017 after being placed in the jail’s restraint chair. The county paid a $150,000 settlement in that case. A medical examiner ruled DeGraffenreid’s death an accident attributed to drug intoxication from cocaine and methamphetamine.

Jackson County, with about 717,000 residents, is second only in population to St. Louis County, with about 998,000 residents, among Missouri counties.


Jim Salter is the AP correspondent in St. Louis.