Between 5:15 p.m. and 7:02 p.m. on Aug. 9, 2007, Martin Cotton's final hours were recorded unpoetically in the Humboldt County Correctional Facilities observation log:
1715 hours Admitted — Extremely combative
1738 hours Moving — OK
1752 hours Talking / Moving OK
1755 hours Moving
1807 hours Breathing / Moved
1821 hours On stomach / Breathing
1834 hours On stomach / Breathing
1848 hours On stomach / Breathing
1902 hours Breathing shallow / Medical called
Cotton was pronounced dead at approximately 7:40 p.m after being admitted to St. Joseph Hospital. There is a tape of the almost two hours Cotton spent in the jail cell, but only a few people have seen it, including the County Coroner and the District Attorney, and they disagree with one another as to whether Cotton most probably died of a self-inflicted head injury.
In a press conference last Thursday, Humboldt County District Attorney Paul Gallegos announced that he would not be pressing charges against any of the officers involved in Cotton's arrest and detention.
The overall feel from the meeting was that, though no concrete cause of death could be determined, "the most reasonable conclusion" (Gallegos' words) to be drawn from the available evidence was that Cotton sustained the subdural hematoma that killed him while in his jail cell.
That conflicts with a report in last week's Journal, in which Humboldt County Coroner Frank Jager argues that Cotton most likely suffered his fatal head injury during one of the two altercations he engaged in on Aug 9. Jager said it was unlikely Cotton had caused the injury himself because of the "padded nature" of his jail cell.
Gallegos, who has watched the video of Cotton acting "very disturbed" in the cell and hitting his head, doesn't have as much faith in the cell's padding as Jager does. "There is padding on the cell," Gallegos said," but not such that if you were slamming your head it would prevent the injuries that Cotton had." Gallegos compared the padding to a car seatbelt, which doesn't ensure that someone will survive an accident.
Still, the DA's report didn't find enough evidence to prove any one theory about what caused Cotton's head injury "beyond a reasonable doubt."
Last week's Journal article, "Who Killed Martin Cotton?," relied heavily on the words and opinions of Jager. I stated in the article that Cotton was placed in a fully padded cell. That was based on what Jager told me last Monday. Last Thursday, I took a tour of the cell for myself and discovered that it was not, in fact, fully padded. Rather, the floor and a partition that blocks the toilet from the view of passing guards is covered with, what I was told by a corrections officer, is 1/4-inch-thick rubber. I touched the padding myself. It's similar to the squishy rubber material used for playgrounds to lighten a child's fall — it is by no means plush.
The cell Cotton was placed in is known as a "sobering cell." Unlike a "safety cell," which has rubber-coated walls, floors and a recessed toilet, the sobering cell has light blue cinderblock walls and a metal toilet. Why wasn't a visibly agitated Cotton, too combative even to be medically screened, placed in a fully padded safety cell? That's a question for Sheriff Gary Philp, who is unlikely to speak on the subject now since earlier last week Cotton's family filed a wrongful death and civil rights violation claim against city and county agencies.
Reached last Friday, Jager said that when we last spoke he was under the misimpression that Cotton's cell was fully padded. He assumed this from information provided to him by the Sheriff's Office, and from the video he'd seen. He admitted, though, that he had not visited HCCF cell #N144.
At the press conference last Thursday, Gallegos described his recollection of the Cotton video but he could not say for sure whether Cotton had hit his head on any non-padded portion of the approximately seven foot square jail cell. There is certainly one way to dispel any doubt about the matter and that is to release the tape — at least to Cotton's family, if not to the public, for closer inspection.
Until that's done, it seems hard not to agree with Cotton's aunt, Lynda Rumburg, who was quoted in the Times-Standard last week: "Why wouldn't they want to release the tape?" she asked. "To me, that tells me they have something to hide."