Lawsuit alleges that inmate died at the hands of guards

Lawyer says video proves his client was harmed by prison staff

File Photo A new lawsuit filed alleges William Parisio, an inmate at the county jail, died as a result of corrections officers restraining him.
File Photo
A new lawsuit filed alleges William Parisio, an inmate at the county jail, died as a result of corrections officers restraining him.

UNION COUNTY — The Cranford man accused of bludgeoning his 22-year-old girlfriend with a dumbbell in 2011 died in February in the Union County Jail as a result of six guards restraining him and cutting off his airway, alleges a civil lawsuit filed last week in Superior Court by his mother.

William Parisio, the 25-year-old township man awaiting trial for the March 2011 death of Rutgers University senior Pamela Schmidt, died February 17 while in custody at the jail.

Parisio was later pronounced dead at Trinitas Regional Medical Center, but little information was known about how he exactly died. By the end of February, acting Union County Prosecutor Grace Park did announce that the inmate’s cause of death was pending additional toxicology and biological tests.

Later, the Union County Medical Examiner determined the inmate died from cardiac dysrhythmia, a condition where the heart races wildly which is usually the result of “excited delirium and physical restraint.”

Macri said last week this was probably caused by a head injury Parisio suffered when he was assaulted by guards in the weeks before his death.

The Prosecutor’s Office never released any further details of what took place in Parisio’s jail cell that February day until three months later when Parisio’s mother, Diane McKernan, filed a $1 million wrongful death lawsuit against the county in Superior Court.
The lawsuit alleged her son “was beaten by corrections officers through the negligence of corrections officers” who had custody and control of him. The lawsuit further maintained the inmate’s injuries were so severe they caused “great pain and suffering and lead to his death.”

McKernan’s May lawsuit specifically named employees of the Union County Sheriff’s Department, Union County Police Department, Union County Department of Correctional Services and the New Jersey State Police who, she said, were responsible for the custody and well being of her son.

But, while the May lawsuit suggested jail guards were involved in the inmate’s death, it was not until last week when McKernan’s attorney, Anthony Macri, announced there was a video of what took place Feb. 17 in Parisio’s jail cell.

The attorney said the video clearly shows Parisio was assaulted by a team of six corrections officers who cut off the inmate’s airway during attempts to remove him from his cell for a psychiatrist’s appointment. Macri said the video shows Parisio “pleading” to be left in his cell at the county jail, but no one heeded his request.

When the inmate, described by Macri as “scared and pathetic,” begged jail guards not to be taken out of the cell, six officers in helmets and tactical gear rushed in to subdue him. The lawsuit said the video showed the jail guards holding Parisio down and restraining him with a belt across his chest. The assault, the attorney said, resulted in Parisio’s airway being cut off, which ultimately killed him.

Macri said jail guards failed to realize Parisio was not breathing, which resulted in a delay in resuscitating him. Macri, who saw the video with a physician, said the guards were attempting to get Parisio to a psychiatrist appointment, but he did not want to go.

Although authorities said Pariso used a 12-pound dumbbell to pummel Schmidt on March 11, 2011, in his mother’s basement and then manually strangled her, the Cranford resident pled not guilty to the charges against him. He was awaiting trial in a secluded section of the jail.

According to authorities, Schmidt went to see Parisio on Feb. 16 to break off their two-year relationship after unsuccessfully trying to help him with his drug dependency. The next morning the Rutgers University senior was found murdered in the basement.

Schmidt’s murder took an unusual twist after it surfaced that Parisio had been ingesting “bath salts,” which has a similar effect on the brain as methamphetamines. This led to a firestorm of concern erupting over the growing use of bath salts. In yet another twist, several months after Parisio was arrested, toxicology tests results revealed there was no trace of the drug in Parisio’s system.

At the time of the murder McKernan told media outlets that her son was bipolar and had a long history of substance abuse, including using bath salts. According to police sources this designer drug produces a dangerous and violent high and can cause hallucinations, paranoia, rapid heart beat and suicidal thoughts.

The case led to the state outlawing the sale of bath salts. In August 29, 2011, Gov. Chris Christie signed “Pamela’s Law,” which was named for the victim.

Although now suing the county, in 2011 McKernan did not try to deflect blame. In fact, she told the media her son “had more opportunities than anyone.” She also said neither she nor any member of the family would be paying for her son’s legal defense and if he found a way to post the $400,000 bail, he could not come back to live at her home in Cranford.

Despite McKernan saying in 2011 she would not pay for any of her son’s legal bills, she did pay for his cremation. She also told media outlets recently that she kept in touch with her son through letters and the telephone. However, she claimed that since October of 2013 Parisio had been the victim of assaults by jail guards. He also had been put in solitary confinement at the jail, which did not help his mental state.

McKernan’s attorney filed the lawsuit Dec. 3, the same day the Union County Prosecutor’s Office informed her that a grand jury decided not to file any criminal charges against any of the guards involved. Ironically, the news came the same day a New York City grand jury refused to indict the police officer who used a chokehold on Eric Garner who died after telling police officers he was unable to breathe.

This is not the first death that occurred in the county jail under unusual circumstances. In 1999 Darryl Byron died in June of that year from renal failure as a result of sepsis. A diabetic, Byron had a bacterial infection due to a tooth extraction. A complaint was filed by his family against the jail about his medical care while in the jail.

In 2004 Aaron Pitman, 22, was in the county jail for drug possession and violation of parole and died less than three weeks after his arrest. According to the lawsuit filed by his mother, Pittman suffered from Crohn’s disease, but his medication was confiscated when he was put in jail. Macri, also the attorney for the Pittman family, said at the time jail guards failed to refer Pittman for treatment and as a result he was found unconscious in his cell. He died several hours later of sepsis.

Also in 2004 21-year-old Jacek Lazarski was incarcerated at the county jail on an outstanding warrant for driving with a revoked license. Although depressed while at the jail, his condition went untreated and he hung himself with a bed sheet. According to a lawsuit filed by his mother, jail guards attempted to revive him but no one knew where the key to the oxygen tank was or how to get it. The county, while not admitting any wrongdoing on the part of jail guards, settled a lawsuit in 2005 for $50,000

In 2005, Donald Davis, 44, was arrested after stealing an undershirt from a Elizabeth store. Five days later he was found dead in his cell. The medical examiner found he died from peritonitis, the result of a stomach infection. According to media reports, Davis tried to tell jail guards he needed medical attention but they ignored his pleas. His family brought a lawsuit against the county jail but it is unknown if it was settled or not.

In 2007 Jonathan Dawkins, 40, while in the county jail for aggravated assault and resisting arrest, was pepper sprayed and restrained for unknown reasons. Unconscious, he later was taken to the hospital and put on life support.

According to media reports, his family said he had blackened eyes, bruising and a swollen face. A press release from the county at the time noted that Dawkins had to be removed from his cell by “a team of corrections personnel when medical intervention became necessary.” The county did not say what transpired other than the inmate was in intensive care. Dawkins had been at the county jail for 12 days.

In a lawsuit that followed, a video tape revealed that similar circumstances surrounding Parisio’s death took place. On the video, media reports indicated, Dawkins could be heard gasping for breath. The $44 million complaint against the county for damages for past and future medical expenses noted that constraints continued to be applied even though Dawkins was motionless, which inhibited his breathing and resulted in severe brain damage.

Addison Wilcox, 33, also died while an inmate of the county jail. Star Ledger reports from 2008 indicated the inmate had complained to guards for several days that he had shortness of breath and respiratory problems, but he was never seen by a doctor. In media reports his family said Wilcox was very healthy when he was arrested.