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County sued over custody death

By LOYD COOK/Corsicana Daily Sun Staff

Corsicana, Texas --- October 28, 2004 --- A father whose son died while in law enforcement custody filed a civil lawsuit Wednesday against the City of Corsicana, Navarro County, law enforcement agencies for both and several officers and deputies in connection with the 2003 death.

Jorge Sifuentes, father of Jesus Sifuentes Martinez, filed the lawsuit in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Texas, Dallas Division.

The suit alleges "a decades-old pattern of civil rights violations against Latinos and other minorities," according a press release issued by a public relations firm for the plaintiff.

"For too long, the City of Corsicana and Navarro County have ignored how their law enforcement agents treat and handle prisoners -- especially the county's growing Hispanic population," said Domingo Garcia, co-counsel on the case for the law firm Miller Weisbrod, LLP. "This lawsuit will serve notice that business as usual will no longer be tolerated. The city and county need real reform to avoid another tragedy."

In the early morning hours of April, 12, 2003, the Corsicana Police Department responded to a call of a man laying unconscious in a yard in the 400 block of South 23rd Street.

The lawsuit alleges that the city's emergency medical service "reported in its run sheet that the Corsicana Police prevented EMS personnel from examining Martinez, taking vital signs or rendering any medical care."

But in an April 15, 2003 article about the incident, Corsicana Police Chief G.M. Cox said that Martinez was examined by EMS personnel at the scene and said Martinez was in satisfactory condition to be taken to jail and that he was arrested for public intoxication.

In the same article Cox called on the public for any information regarding a party Martinez reportedly attended on Friday night, April 11, a few hours before Martinez was arrested. He also said that the department had already interviewed 10 people and taken four statements and was treating the case as a homicide.

An autopsy by the Dallas County Medical Examiner revealed that Martinez died of "blunt force injuries," consisting of bowel perforation, liver lacerations, rib fractures and a cerebral contusion.

A spokesperson for the Corsicana Police Department said Wednesday that Chief Cox had not seen the lawsuit and would not comment.

City Attorney Terry Jacobsen said he also couldn't comment on the lawsuit without first examining it but does not believe the City has any liability in the case.

Other civil cases in the past have gone to the Texas Municipal League where cities in the region participate in an insurance risk pool. In those cases, an attorney representing the insurance risk pool would be the main counsel in the case -- after the lawsuit is officially served on a designated representative or representatives of the named city.

The lawsuit alleges that Martinez complained of stomach pains several times during that Saturday in April last year while he was in the Navarro County Justice Center Jail. Speaking only Spanish, the lawsuit states that bilingual cell mates "implored jailers to get him medical attention," but not until 7:10 a.m. the following day did an officer enter his cell.

The filing alleges that the officer "still withheld medical care with deliberate indifference," and that Martinez died 25 minutes later, at 7:35 a.m. on April 13, 2003.

"This case is an absolute outrage," said Spencer Markle, a partner in the law firm representing Martinez's father. "The arresting officers and jailers exhibited callous and conscious indifference to Jesus Sifuentes' serious medical condition.... An innocent man is dead because of their neglect."

Navarro County Sheriff Les Cotten also refused comment Wednesday, saying he had not yet been served with the lawsuit.

Bob Bass, a partner in the law firm Allison & Bass, the county's legal counsel, said he has been monitoring the case for some time.

"Obviously, we're familiar with the facts and we're comfortable that the county is not going to be liable for any damages in this case," Bass said.

He said there is a two-year statute of limitations on filing such lawsuits -- a deadline set to run out next April.

"Any time there's a death case you almost expect someone to file a lawsuit," Bass said.

In alleging the "decades-old pattern of civil rights violations," the lawsuit lists the June 26, 1993 death in custody of Craig Thomas, a black man, and the June 1, 2003 death in custody of Gilberto Hernandez.

It also lists the jail suicide of capital murder defendant Michael Zoch as an example of an inmate not receiving medical care, in his case for mental health, and for lack of adequate supervision.

Loyd Cook may be contacted via e-mail at