Lawsuit over Polk inmate’s death scheduled for trial

Curfew violations aren’t supposed to be fatal.

But the arrest and subsequent jailing of a 21-year-old bipolar schizophrenic in Polk County proved to be just that.

James Lee Griffin died five years ago after 10 Polk deputies tried to drag him from his cell at the county jail, including using an electronic riot shield.

A federal jury will now be asked to determine who, if anyone, is to blame in Griffin’s death.

Jury selection in a lawsuit filed by Griffin’s mother, Gina Slone, is expected to begin Monday. The trial is slated to last two weeks.

“This case is one in which the jury will have to decide how society wants to treat its mentally ill, including those in jail,” said Tom Scarritt, one of Slone’s attorneys.

Slone sued the deputies and Sheriff Grady Judd in state court in 2007, claiming the deputies used excessive force. The case was removed to federal court two years later.

During prior incarcerations, Griffin had told jail personnel about his psychiatric problems.

Jonathan B. Trohn, the attorney for Judd and the deputies, declined to comment.

An autopsy by the Polk medical examiner ruled Griffin’s death an accident, a conclusion backed up by a pathologist hired by the defense. Both attributed the death to “excited delirium syndrome” brought on by Griffin’s mental problems and aggravated by his struggle with deputies.

But a forensic pathologist hired by Griffin’s family concluded that he choked to death and that his injuries were caused by blows to the head and electric shocks.

Griffin was arrested for violating curfew in the early hours of March 18, 2006, after he got in an altercation with another customer at the International House of Pancakes on State Road 60 in Lake Wales.

Griffin was on probation for a burglary conviction and wasn’t allowed to be out that late.

He had a history of mental problems and court-ordered hospitalizations, documents show, and hadn’t taken his medication for months.

Slone told deputies later she had considered having her son involuntarily committed that night before he left to meet a friend at the restaurant.

When Griffin arrived at the Polk County Jail he was loud and belligerent, authorities said.

He was transferred to a padded cell to keep him from hurting himself.

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