Court to decide whether Okla. sheriff must face trial over inmate's death

According to testimony, the inmate died in a jail restraint chair in 2016 after being confined there for 54 hours


By Nolan Clay
The Oklahoman

ENID, Okla. — The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals is being asked to decide whether a sheriff must face trial over a jail inmate's death.

Garfield County Sheriff Jerry Niles was blamed in a first-degree manslaughter charge for the 2016 death of an inmate arrested for public intoxication.

Garfield County Sheriff Jerry Niles was blamed in a first-degree manslaughter charge for the 2016 death of an inmate arrested for public intoxication. (Photo/GCSO)
Garfield County Sheriff Jerry Niles was blamed in a first-degree manslaughter charge for the 2016 death of an inmate arrested for public intoxication. (Photo/GCSO)

Anthony Huff, 58, of Enid, died in a jail restraint chair on June 8, 2016, after being confined there for 54 hours, according to testimony at a preliminary hearing.

The preliminary hearing judge in August ordered three other defendants to face trial but dismissed the case against the sheriff.

Beaver County Associate District Judge Ryan Reddick ruled Aug. 10 that prosecutors had insufficient evidence against Niles.

A reviewing judge last week upheld the dismissal. On Wednesday, Woodward County District Attorney Chris Boring asked the appeals court to decide.

"It was error to determine that there was no criminal liability for the sheriff in regards to violations of the Oklahoma Jail Standards and actions or inactions by his employees," the prosecutor wrote in his challenge.

Niles was first elected sheriff in 2012 and has said he is innocent. He has been on voluntary paid suspension because of the accusations.

Niles, 60, was accused in the manslaughter charge of causing the inmate's death by treating him in a cruel and inhumane manner and/or restraining him in violation of jail standards.

In upholding the dismissal, the reviewing judge ruled there was no evidence the sheriff even knew the inmate had been restrained in the chair.

Custer County Associate District Judge Jill Weedon ruled after reading the transcript of the four-day preliminary hearing and watching a video covering the inmate's last 19 hours in the restraint chair.

The judge pointed out in her nine-page order that the sheriff's office is located about seven miles away from the jail.

"The Sheriff and/or Garfield County may be civilly liable for actions of employees, but the law does not provide that the Sheriff can be criminally prosecuted for acts of employees unless he is an accomplice," Weedon wrote in the order filed Sept. 6.

The judge also wrote that prosecutors did not prove the sheriff personally or administratively violated jail standards.

"The employees knew there was a policy, but did not do a good job of following the policy," she wrote.

The judge further noted that the doctor who did the autopsy determined the probable cause of death was Huff's chronic alcoholism.

Niles still faces a civil rights lawsuit over the death. That lawsuit is pending in Oklahoma City federal court.

He also faces a misdemeanor nepotism case in Garfield County District Court. If convicted in that case, he could be forced to forfeit his office.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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