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‘Valid reasons’ claimed by Sacramento County lawyer in kicking blacks off jail-abuse jury

A lawyer for Sacramento County said his side had “valid reasons” to exclude two African Americans from a jury that won’t be hearing the case anyway, since it settled Monday with a $2.5 million award to a black former inmate of the county jail.

U.S. District Court Judge John A. Mendez announced the settlement the day attorneys were supposed to pick a new jury.

They already selected one last week, but Mendez dismissed it May 1 on his finding that lawyers for the county and three individual defendants – Sheriff Scott Jones and two other sheriff’s employees – knocked the blacks out of the jury pool “because of the color of their skin.”

On top of the $2.5 million, the county also agreed to pay $13,640 in costs “with respect to the jury selection issue,” Mendez said. Lawyers on both sides said it was for a plaintiff’s jury expert.

The former inmate, James Joshua Mayfield, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, had suffered from mental problems for years, according to his lawsuit, before he was jailed on suspicion of robbery and other charges in 2011. Mayfield’s lawsuit against the county said he tried to kill himself two years into his incarceration by jumping off his cell bunk. It paralyzed him for life.

“We will never be able to walk away from this,” his father, James Allison Mayfield Jr., said in an interview after the settlement. “We will forever be in this position, as a paralyzed son, as a father who has to care for him for the rest of his life.”

The settlement must be approved by the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors. Mayfield also has an additional $2.5 million settlement pending with UC Davis Medical Center, which provides psychiatric services at the jail.

After Monday’s settlement, Van Longyear, the privately retained attorney for Sacramento County, sought to explain the defense lawyers’ decision during the jury selection process to remove the African Americans.

“Jury selections are always very difficult,” Longyear said, adding that the judge did all the questioning of the prospective panelists and that the lawyers had to limit their challenges to the first eight in the box.

“Two of the first eight jurors happened to be African Americans,” Longyear said. “We had six challenges, and we exercised five of them, and we believe that we had very, very valid reasons. The court disagreed, and that’s the way things happen.”

As soon as the second African American juror was eliminated, plaintiffs’ attorneys made a verbal motion to challenge the action. The defense argued that the decisions were “race neutral,” that they struck one of the blacks because he had a friend who committed suicide and the other because he was young and only had a “scant education,” Mendez wrote.

The judge disputed the rationale for the exclusions. He wrote in his order granting the plaintiffs’ motion that there were three non-black jurors who had friends or relatives who committed suicide and two non-blacks who had less education than the younger juror – all of whom were kept on by the defense.

One of Mayfield’s lawyers, Lori Rifkin, said she thought “it is important that the federal court held them accountable for illegally using race as a factor in their jury selection.”

“I think the county of Sacramento and the sheriff who was part of the jury selection process need to reflect on the attitudes that are resulting in these kinds of actions,” Rifkin said. “And the public needs to hold them accountable for the kinds of attitudes that result in striking the only two African American members of the jury pool in this kind of case in the year 2017.”

The lawsuit says that Mayfield’s jailers knew he was suicidal but didn’t do enough to stop him from trying to kill himself. It also said a beating administered by jail Deputy Ivan Orozco sent Mayfield into a downward psychiatric spiral leading up to his July 17, 2013, suicide try.

A jail psychiatric report prepared two months after Mayfield’s June 2011 arrest – on suspicion of robbery, attempted carjacking and other charges, according to court records – diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic with at least four prior suicide attempts, according to the suit. Court records showed that Mayfield entered a no contest plea a month after the suicide try and was sentenced to the two years he had already served.

Mayfield, who is now 22, was an excellent student and promising athlete in the San Jose area before he sustained a traumatic brain injury playing freshman football in high school. Afterward, “He was depressed, angry and aggressive in ways he had never been before. His attention, concentration and memory were significantly impaired,” the lawsuit said.

Asked about the settlement decision, Longyear said, “it’s a very sad case that involves a devastating injury to a young man,” compounded by the “really courageous way” that Mayfield’s parents and co-plaintiffs, James Allison Mayfield Jr. and Terri Mayfield, have dedicated their lives since his injury to provide him with 24-hour care.

“I think it would be very hard for the jury to set that aside, the tremendous sympathy that would flow toward Mr. Mayfield, the senior, caring for his kid as a result of that,” Longyear said.

A painting contractor for 32 years, the elder Mayfield gave up his business to care for his son.

Rifkin called the settlement “a recognition” by the county “that what happened to James Joshua Mayfield is something that nobody, no human being should ever have to endure.”

“We hope that some real reforms will happen at the Sacramento County jail,” Rifkin said, “to make that jail a safe place for people with mental illness.”

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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