CINCINNATI — Questions have swirled around the October 2013 death of Zachary Goldson for years after Brown County deputies found him hanging from a bed sheet in his jail cell less than an hour after he had assaulted a deputy and tried to take his gun.
A former Brown County coroner ruled his death a homicide and accused sheriff’s deputies of killing him and staging his death as a suicide.
But a grand jury cleared deputies of any criminal wrongdoing in 2014, as did the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations. And a Montgomery County coroner, who performed Goldson’s autopsy, also believed his death was a suicide.
Now a jury will finally decide how Goldson died, and if deputies used excessive force on the 24-year-old man who was in the jail awaiting trial on gun charges.
Goldson’s sister, Ashley Bard, is suing the two deputies who were alone in the cell with her brother during the moments before his death. She is seeking punitive damages that could rise into the millions of dollars if the jury sides with her.
“It’s 2013 and the blue wall of silence is still in full effect,” Bard’s attorney, Alan Statman, told jurors during opening statements in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati on Monday. “The abusive, excessive use of force got out of hand … these guys decided they were judge, jury and executioner.”
Goldson died in his jail 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.”
But the deputies’ attorney, Dan Downey, told the jury that Goldson took his own life and that “these officers had nothing to do with that choice.”
The trial before Chief U.S. District Court Judge Susan Dlott is expected to take a week and a half, before an eight-person all-white jury, made up of six women and two men. Several deputies, at least one inmate, two coroners and dueling expert witnesses are expected to testify.
“What occurred in that cell in that 96 seconds is what this case is about,” Downey said, referring to the amount of time former Brown County Correctional Officer Zane Schadle and Deputy George Dunning were alone in the cell with Goldson.
“They did not rig a death scene in 96 seconds,” Downey told jurors.
Deputies booked Goldson into the Brown County jail on Sept. 26, 2013 on charges he shot a gun across a roadway, and two related gun charges.
Days later, Goldson swallowed a toothbrush while showing other inmates how he could regurgitate items, Statman said.
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.
Jurors silently watched that video on Monday, while Goldson's sister quietly cried in the courtroom.
“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."
As deputies were leaving the scene, Wedmore said, "That mother***er … is getting a welcome party when we get to the jail," according to the video.
Wedmore will testify that he “regrets what he said,” and he “never acted on it,” Downey said.
Less than an hour later, deputies found Goldson with a bed sheet around his neck hanging from an overhead sprinkler mount in his cell.
The jury saw photos of Goldson lying dead on his cell floor with a noose around his neck and his hands handcuffed behind his back.
Deputies said they handcuffed him after they cut the sheet down from the ceiling, but before they started CPR, attorneys for both sides told the jury.
“That noose was never loosened,” Statman said, calling the jury’s attention to Goldson’s purple face.
Statman also showed the jury the video from the jail sally port, when deputies pulled Goldson from the cruiser wearing handcuffs and leg shackles, allowing him to fall face-first onto the concrete floor, he said.
Yet the case may boil down to expert testimony and whether the jury believes it was physically possible for Goldson to hang himself. They will see a replica of Goldson’s jail cell and an animation from experts who will tell jurors about their theories of what happened in the cell.