A state watchdog agency has concluded the death of Montgomery County Jail inmate Luis Torres last October was accidental, caused by Torres’ botched attempt to get hurt so he could file a lawsuit but also facilitated by negligence on the part of the Sheriff’s Department.
The 30-year-old Amsterdam man died Oct. 13, 2010, after he fell out of a moving Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department transport van taking a left-hand turn off state Route 5S into the entrance to the public safety facility and jail.
As Torres’ shocked relatives continued to dispute the department’s version of events — that the inmate returning from a court appearance in Amsterdam was trying to escape — the state Commission of Correction conducted its own investigation into the death.
The Daily Gazette received the results of that investigation Friday, more than seven months after filing a Freedom of Information Law request with the commission. The report, portions of which were redacted for confidentiality reasons, recommends that the case be closed as an accidental death.
It says that based on its investigation and interviews with the four other inmates who were in the van at the time of Torres’ death, Torres died as a result of “attempting to or intentionally injuring himself for financial gain from a lawsuit settlement.”
It says that two primary factors contributed to the outcome of the incident: Torres’ “poor discretion and subsequent voluntary actions” and “the failure of the department to ensure that the transport van’s interior door latch was disabled.”
But the department’s negligence is the only factor that caused Torres’ death, according to his family’s attorney, E. Robert Keach, who operates a private law firm in Amsterdam.
For that reason, he said he plans to file a lawsuit before Thursday, the anniversary of Torres’ death and the one-year deadline in which a negligence suit can be filed.
Torres’ father, Luis Torres Sr., will seek damages on claims of negligence and violation of state corrections law and regulations, Keach said. Named as defendants on the suit will be Montgomery County, Sheriff Michael Amato, Undersheriff Jeffery Smith, the jail administrator and the two corrections officers who were operating the van.
“The Commission on Correction made a credibility determination,” Keach said. “They decided to believe two of the inmates in the van versus the other two who say something different. The decision about who’s telling the truth in this case is going to be made by a jury, not by Michael Amato, not by the commission.”
Keach said he has interviewed all four surviving inmates who were in the van. Two said he was trying to escape, two said he fell out.
Amato was not in the office Friday and could not be reached for comment.
The undersheriff, Smith, said the department had no say in the findings by the commission, a state agency that serves as a watchdog and regulator over lockups, jails and prisons in New York state.
He said because of potential litigation he can’t comment on whether inmates or guards ever reported hearing of a plan by Torres to intentionally injure himself for financial gain.
“It’s never a good thing when a life is lost, so our hearts go out to the Torres family, as they did that day,” Smith said. “It’s unfortunate that the incident took place, and the investigation reveals the facts in what happened.”
At a news conference last year following Torres’ death, officials said Torres was involved in a conversation with guards and inmates about what guards would do if somebody tried to escape.
In an Oct. 13, 2010, statement provided to The Daily Gazette by Keach, an inmate by the initials R.V. said the van was turning into the jail when he saw Torres stand up, still handcuffed, push the lock up with his right hand, and stick his left hand out the window and open the door.
“As soon as he opened the door it looked like his left hand was caught in the window, the door just flew open, and he fell out of the van,” said R.V. “I saw Luis hit the back right hand side of his head on the ground.”
R.V. said that earlier that day in court, Torres had asked an officer why they remove leg shackles but not handcuffs in court. He said the officer said it was because they didn’t want the inmates to fall down the stairs.
“After that, the one with the broken arm said that a lawsuit would get you out of jail,” said R.V. in the statement. “When we were in the jail van, Luis never told me what he was going to do. I don’t think Luis was trying to escape or kill himself. I think he just wanted to get hurt, and say OK I got a little lawsuit, drop my charges.”
Keach said it would have been physically impossible for Torres — secured at his wrists, ankles and waist — to have gotten out of the vehicle the way two of the inmates testified he did.
He said that the four other inmates in the van provided conflicting versions of what happened, and that a jury would have to determine who was telling the truth.
“The guy was wearing a waist chain, shackles on his ankles and handcuffs fixed on his waist,” Keach said. “This inmate claims he’s reaching out of the window to open the door from the outside when he’s got all this stuff on. How can an inmate do that and not be seen by corrections officers who are supposed to be guarding them? I didn’t realize that Luis Torres was the second coming of Harry Houdini.”
The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department has since disabled the interior door latches on its transport vehicles, which are usually adjusted so inmates can’t open the door from the inside.
But the van used that day was a new one, Amato told the media last year, and he believed the guards assumed the door was like the other vans and couldn’t be opened from the inside.
Smith said Friday that generally inmates stay seated and don’t open the latch from the inside, so it’s never been an issue.
“Unfortunately, a lot in law enforcement is done reactively,” Smith said. “Many times, incidents cause you to take actions that maybe you hadn’t done or checked before the incident took place. You would never think that someone would get up and try to open a door in a moving vehicle. Now we have an incident that shows you have to disable those latches so people can’t do that.”
Torres had been sentenced to eight years with a conditional release date of April 21, 2016, after he was picked up on a parole violation. He had previously served 90 days for criminal sale of a controlled substance.
The day he died, Torres appeared in Amsterdam City Court on charges of fourth-degree criminal mischief and second-degree harassment.
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Categories: Schenectady County