Judge drops excessive force claims against Brown Co. deputies in inmate's hanging death

Posted at 12:16 PM, Feb 14, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-14 12:28:44-05

CINCINNATI — A federal judge dismissed all excessive force claims against the Brown County Sheriff’s Department in a lawsuit filed by a woman who claimed deputies staged her brother’s hanging in his jail cell.

Questions have swirled around the October 2013 death of Zachary Goldson, 24, after a former county coroner ruled his death a homicide and accused sheriff’s deputies of killing him and staging his death as a suicide.

Goldson’s sister, Ashley Bard, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati six months after his death. She accused deputies of using excessive force, failing to intervene on the use of unreasonable force and being deliberately being indifferent to her brother’s medical needs.

On Wednesday U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott issued an order that essentially gutted the lawsuit for lack of evidence.

But she admitted that questions remain about Goldson’s death.

“Some evidence suggests that it would have been difficult … for an inmate acting alone to have hung himself,” Dlott wrote in her order on a motion for summary judgment.

She dismissed the bulk of the claims against sheriff’s deputies due to lack of evidence.

“Plaintiff has not put forth admissible evidence establishing who caused Goldson’s death and when if he did not commit suicide,” Dlott wrote. “Officers cannot be held liable simply because they took Goldson to his holding cell and/or were present at the jail when he died.”

Dlott allowed one part of the lawsuit to proceed to trial - a single claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress against Deputy Ryan Wedmore who is accused of telling Goldson, that he wanted to “break [his] f****** neck,” and that he would get a “welcome party” at the jail.

Zachary Goldson

In her 45-page order, Dlott picked apart theories and questions that have swirled around Goldson’s death for more than five years.

Goldson, who had a history of suicidal behavior, had been hospitalized briefly on the night of his death after he swallowed a pen. He then attacked and injured a sheriff’s deputy, while trying to grab his gun, when the deputy was escorting him to his cruiser to transfer him back to the jail.

An hour later, deputies found Goldson with a bed sheet around his neck, hanging from an overhead sprinkler.

Forensic pathologists, a county grand jury, and a state criminal investigations unit all determined that Goldson committed suicide by hanging.

But former Brown County Coroner Judith Varnau believed the marks visible on Goldson’s neck were likely caused by a deputy’s hobble strap or leash than by a bed sheet.

“She stated that she did not believe Goldson hung himself, but she stated further 'What happened, I do not know' and 'They [the officers] need to tell us,'" Dlott wrote. “Dr. Varnau, nonetheless, offered inconsistent theories of how he died. She stated that at one point that the hanging was staged, but at another point that a guard might have asked an inmate to hang Goldson.”

The Twelfth District Court of Appeals in 2017 permanently blocked Varnau from continuing to examine Goldson’s death. The court also found that Varnau owed county deputies $7,500 in legal fees they spent to defend themselves against her claims.

The appellate court also mentioned a long-standing legal feud between Varnau and her husband, Dennis, with former Brown County Sheriff Dwayne Wenninger. Wenninger defeated Dennis Varnau in the 2008 race for sheriff.

“Moreover, Dr. Varnau did not testify—nor could she testify since she was not present at the jail—as to which officer purportedly placed the never-seen hobble strap or ligature around Goldson’s neck,” Dlott wrote.

While Bard lacked specific evidence to implicate deputies – or anyone – in Goldson’s death, Dlott admitted that a legitimate dispute exists about whether the inmate could have hung himself.

“On one side, the officers testified that they found Goldson hanging, the hallway video showed that no one entered Goldson’s cell between the time he was locked in the cell around 2:34 a.m. and the time (a deputy) discovered him at 2:58 a.m., Dlott wrote.

But an expert witness for Bard testified at an earlier court hearing that he was unable to physically duplicate the acts required for a person to hang himself from the sprinkler assembly in a reproduction of the holding cell.

“Goldson’s fingerprint record indicates that Goldson’s left middle finger was physically impaired which could have made the act of tying a sheet around the sprinkler head escutcheon more difficult,” Dlott wrote.

This is not the only suicide reported at the Brown County jail.

In July 2015 deputies found 29-year-old Jeremiah Hall hanging in his cell.

A year later Hall’s mother, Lisa Hollin, filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against the Brown County Sheriff’s Department and deputies.

Six months later, in November 2016, both sides agreed to dismiss the lawsuit.

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