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California and the West

Jailhouse Death Was Unintentional, Inquest Rules

February 27, 2001|TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LAS VEGAS — Nine correctional officers are returning to work after a coroner's inquest concluded that the jailhouse asphyxiation of a French national last month was an accident.

The FBI, however, is independently investigating the videotaped death of Philippe Le Menn and will forward its findings to the U.S. Department of Justice, which previously had opened an investigation into conditions at the Clark County detention center.

Le Menn, 33, died Jan. 4 while in custody at the Clark County jail in downtown Las Vegas. He had been arrested earlier that day outside a school where he created such a disturbance--including ambiguous threats shouted in English and French--that school officials locked the grounds and called police.

Several hours after his arrest, Le Menn--a local restaurant manager--grew increasingly agitated, and guards started to move him to a medical observation cell.

A violent struggle ensued for the next five minutes involving, at times, nine officers. Le Menn fell limp and was declared dead after attempts to resuscitate him.

The death attracted criticism from local civil rights activists, who said the case illustrated jailhouse brutality. French government officials complained that they were not notified of Le Menn's arrest.

Clark County Coroner Ron Flud concluded that Le Menn, who had no signs of drugs or alcohol in his blood, suffocated at the hands of others. He asked the district attorney's office to present the case to a seven-member jury to decide if the guards and their supervisors should be held criminally responsible, or whether his death was justified or excusable.

In the inquest that began Friday and concluded Saturday, a medical examiner testified that Le Menn died from asphyxiation due to restraint, probably from sustained pressure to his neck or upper body.

Nevada law says an "excusable death" occurs when "a person doing a lawful act without any intention of killing, yet unfortunately kills another."

Metropolitan Police spokesman Lt. Marc Joseph said his department will continue to cooperate with the FBI and any other investigations of the death.

Daron Borst, an FBI special agent in Las Vegas, said investigators "are putting the pieces together. We'll package it and send it to the Justice Department, which will make a determination if there's been a violation of federal civil rights statutes. We're in the middle of that."

Allen Lichtenstein, counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, criticized the coroner's inquest "as a process that is not designed to find the truth" because the proceeding does not allow for cross-examination by other affected parties.

Coroner's inquests following the same general procedures are held elsewhere, including Los Angeles County.

Lichtenstein said attorneys will file a wrongful death civil lawsuit against the county in a few days.

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