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Judge dismisses wrongful death case

Baggie of fentanyl likely led to death

By Mark Reaman

A civil lawsuit filed in federal district court against the Gunnison County sheriff’s office and several law enforcement individuals including Sheriff Rick Besecker has been dismissed through a summary judgment. The lawsuit is related to the death of Joseph “Trey”’ Duke, who died while incarcerated in the county jail in June 2015.

The suit contended that law enforcement officials did not take proper action to prevent Duke’s death while he was in custody. According to federal district Judge R. Brooke Jackson’s summary judgment order, Duke was arrested the afternoon of June 27, 2015. While he was moved between cells in the Gunnison County Detention Center, he was monitored several times by deputies throughout his time in custody. But shortly after 9 a.m. on June 28, it was observed that Duke was slumped over on the floor and not breathing. Emergency personnel were unable to revive him.

According to the summary judgment document, “An autopsy revealed a plastic baggie in Trey’s gastric contents that contained traces of fentanyl. The autopsy determined that Trey had fentanyl, cocaine, benzodiazepines and oxycodone in his system at the time of death and concluded that the cause of death was an acute drug overdose. Defendants’ expert in forensic toxicology opined that the amount of fentanyl in Trey’s system was high enough to be an independent cause of his death, and that none of the other drugs in his blood played a significant role in his death.”

Duke’s family filed the suit alleging that all the named defendants, aside from Sheriff Besecker, “were deliberately indifferent to Trey’s serious medical need in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.” They contended, “The defendants were aware of Trey’s intoxication and risk of death by overdose at the time of his arrest and detention, and that their failure to seek medical treatment led to Trey’s death.”

In the court document, it was stated that the court did not find the situation to be such that “Trey’s state of intoxication when he was arrested or in detention required that he receive medical attention.”

Officially dismissing the case under qualified immunity, which protects officials from civil liability as long as they do not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known, Judge Jackson ordered the wrongful death claim dismissed.

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