CINCINNATI — A jury found that a Brown County Sheriff’s deputy and a former jail officer were not to blame for the death of an inmate found hanging by a bed sheet in his cell in 2013.
Questions have swirled around the 2013 death of inmate Zachary Goldson for years. Jail officers found him dead in his cell less than an hour after a deputy was captured on video yelling into his ear, “I’d like to break your f***ing neck right now.”
Then Brown County Coroner Dr. Judith Varnau ruled it a homicide by strangulation that was staged to look like a suicide.
A grand jury cleared the deputies of any criminal wrongdoing in 2014, as did the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations. A Montgomery County coroner who performed Goldson’s autopsy also said his death was caused by suicide.
On Friday, after deliberating for just under an hour, the jury agreed that excessive force by two then jail officers, who were the last to enter Goldson’s cell before his death, was not to blame for the inmate’s death.
“He made the choice to end his own life with what was left in the cell with him,” Dan Downey, an attorney for the defense, told the jury during closing arguments. “These gentlemen are not responsible for the actions of anyone else.”
Goldson’s sister, Ashley Bard, sued Deputy George Dunning and former Correctional Officer Zane Schadle for excessive force and had been seeking punitive damages.
That led to a week-long trial in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati, where the eight-person all-white jury ultimately sided with the defense. Jurors heard from deputies, several coroners, criminal investigators, an inmate and dueling experts.
Bard’s attorney, Alan Statman, called the testimony of some deputies in this case “disgraceful, disgusting and despicable,” during closing arguments.
“These are the people who are supposed to protect and serve,” Statman said. “There isn’t anything they did that represents what law enforcement is supposed to be. There is a blue wall of silence.”
Statman specifically called out the testimony of Brown County Sheriff’s Deputy Jason Huff, who testified that “You want me to say I’m upset he’s dead. I’m not saying it. I don’t care that he’s dead,” Statman said.
Deputies booked Goldson, 24, into the Brown County jail Sept. 26, 2013, on charges he shot a gun across a roadway, and two related gun charges.
Days later, Goldson swallowed a toothbrush and pen while showing other inmates how he could regurgitate items.
After Goldson complained of stomach pain, Deputy Travis Justice took him to a hospital emergency room for treatment.
When the deputy escorted Goldson to his cruiser outside the hospital to transfer him back to jail, Goldson attacked and injured him, hitting him in the face with his handcuffs and trying to grab his gun. A nurse called 911, while hospital staff helped to hold Goldson to the ground.
Georgetown police, who had a dashboard video camera, and other Brown County deputies responded to the scene to help.
“What the f*** is wrong with you, you stupid mother***er,” Deputy Ryan Wedmore said to Goldson, according to the video. "I'd like to break your f***ing neck."
Less than an hour later, deputies found Goldson hanging from an overhead sprinkler mount in his cell.
The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals had earlier dismissed claims against the sheriff’s department and other deputies whose actions were captured on videos and had a role in detaining Goldson before his death, leaving only Schadle and Dunning to proceed to trial.
Many of the videos that jurors watched contained behavior from other deputies and not the two men who were on trial.
In a video from the sally port at the jail, it was other deputies who pulled Goldson out of the back of the cruiser wearing handcuffs and leg shackles and dropped him face first on the concrete floor.
Downey stressed that to jurors during his closing argument that what happened in the sally port and at the hospital, “was not them," motioning to his clients.
He also tried to discredit Varnau, describing her as an ob-gyn who was elected coroner as a write-in candidate and refused to give up her theory that deputies had killed Goldson, despite facts to the contrary.
Yet Statman described Varnau as someone who, "had the nerve to stand up to the blue wall of silence."
When Varnau walked into Goldson's cell after he was found dead, she noticed that the knot on the bed sheet tied to the ceiling sprinkler was facing away from the sink where Goldson purportedly would have stood to reach the sprinkler.
"She said when she saw that knot was on the back, it was fishy," Statman said.
Dueling experts gave dramatically different testimony about whether or not it would have been physically possible for Goldson to reach the sprinkler head and tie a sheet to it.