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Jury to Decide Whether Deputies Beat to Death Mentally Ill Man

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Michael Tyree was allegedly beaten to death on the sixth floor of Santa Clara's Main Jail. (Lisa Pickoff-White/KQED)

Jury deliberations are expected to begin Thursday morning in the trial of three Santa Clara County sheriff's deputies accused of murdering a mentally ill inmate in their care in 2015.

The defendants appeared in Santa Clara County Superior Court dressed in dark suits, while concerned family members grimly looked on.

If convicted, the three sheriff's deputies could face life in prison.

A photo of Michael Tyree several years before his death.
A photo of Michael Tyree several years before his death. (Courtesy the Tyree family)

Deputy District Attorney Matt Braker told the jury that “power and abuse of power is what this case is about and why this happened.”

Braker went on to recount the testimony of numerous inmates in the same unit of the jail as Tyree, who recalled seeing all three deputies enter Tyree’s cell and hearing screaming, thumping, banging and then silence. Witnesses also noted that the deputies turned off the lights when they left Tyree's cell.

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“They left him in his cell -- alone -- to die,” Braker said.

The defense attacked inmates' testimony, calling it inconsistent. Defense lawyers called several "professional witnesses" who believed they would be rewarded with legal or immigration benefits, a claim that prosecutors refuted.

The final arguments mark the conclusion of a two-month trial that brought national attention to the growing number of people with mental illness in jails, due to a lack of community mental health treatment, under the supervision of deputies who may have little or no training on how to interact with them.

At the time of his death, inmate Michael Tyree was being held in the Main Jail in Santa Clara County for his own safety.

The 31-year-old suffered from addiction and bipolar disorder. He had already served his five-day sentence for violating probation on a minor drug charge, but the judge in his case decided Tyree was better off waiting in jail than on the streets of San Jose until a psychiatric treatment bed -- part of the sentence -- opened up.

But on Aug. 27, 2015, jail staff discovered Tyree dead in his cell, his naked body smeared with vomit and feces.

Days later, in a highly unusual move, Sheriff Laurie Smith publicly announced that an internal investigation had concluded that three correctional deputies were “the reason for this brutal murder of Michael Tyree.”

The deputies -- Matthew Farris, 28, Jereh Lubrin, 30, and Rafael Rodriguez, 28 -- were arrested in September 2015 and charged with murder.

They were released on $1.5 million bail each and placed on paid administrative leave.

During closing arguments Braker told the jury to consider key evidence presented over the past two months to answer just one fundamental question:

"Did one or more of these defendants assault Mr. Tyree, resulting in his death?" Braker said, "The answer is 'yes.' "

The defense was expected to present its side on Wednesday. The jury could begin deliberations immediately after.

Jail Witnesses

“They went to Tyree’s cell, and it was all bad,” testified Juan Perez, an immigration detainee facing deportation who was in a cell with a partial view into Tyree’s cell. “It took like 15 seconds before he started screaming for his life.”


Perez told the jury he heard “Help! Help! Please stop!” followed by “boom, boom” and then Tyree fell silent.

The three deputies are also charged with assaulting another mentally ill inmate shortly before.

Juan Villa, 48, testified that the same deputies had beaten him just minutes before they allegedly beat Tyree.

During the trial, a defense attorney questioned the veracity of Villa’s testimony because of his diagnosis of schizophrenia with hallucinations and delusions.

Sadistic Messages or 'False Bravado'?

Part of the evidence the jury must consider are text messages on the deputies' cellphones.

Prosecutor Matthew Braker showed the jury text messages from both Rodriguez and Farris that suggested they used force with inmates. Braker said Lubrin, however, deleted the texts on his phone before authorities could seize it.

“I slapped a guy yesterday cu[z] he was cussing at the nurse,” one of Rodriguez's texts read.

Farris received a text message from an officer that said he wanted to start twisting inmates at 2 in the morning.

Farris texted back, “Come to the 6th bro, We do it at 12:01.”

The sixth floor refers to the part of the jail reserved for mentally ill inmates and others who need protection.

The deputy who wrote that text, Christian Wilton, said the text was “strictly sarcasm and banter."

During the trial Braker also presented evidence that on Aug. 27, the day after Tyree's death, Rodriguez searched online to find out whether a person can die from being punched in the armpit. The autopsy of Tyree’s body reported a bruise under his armpit.

Deputies accused of 2015 murder of mentally ill inmate in Santa Clara County could face life in prison. From left to right: Rafael Rodriguez, Matthew Farris and Jereh Lubrin. (Photo courtesy Santa Clara Sheriff's Department)

Autopsy Results

The defense and prosecutors also interpreted Tyree's autopsy differently.

Santa Clara County Medical Examiner Dr. Joseph O’Hara told jurors that Tyree died of a ruptured liver and spleen from blunt force trauma so severe it was equivalent to being hit by a vehicle.

O’Hara testified that those are injuries Tyree could not have inflicted on himself.

But Dr. Judy Melinek, an expert witness for the defense, questioned O’Hara’s conclusions.

Melinek, a pathologist at the Alameda County Coroner’s Office, testified that Tyree’s ruptured liver and spleen could have resulted from CPR administered after he was discovered in his cell.

Her findings seemed to support the defense's theory that Tyree fatally injured himself by slipping of his toilet seat and hitting the sink in his cell.

Melinek told jurors that a bruise on Tyree's body was consistent with the shape of the sink in his cell.

Jurors hear closing arguments on May 23, 2017, against three sheriff's deputies accused of murder. (Julie Small/KQED)

Tyree’s Death Spurred Increased Oversight and Reforms of the Jails

Santa Clara County supervisors established a blue-ribbon commission in December 2015 to improve conditions and oversight of the jails and unanimously approved its recommendations.

In a written statement, Sheriff Smith responded that: "Change of an institution the size and scope of our jails is never easy and it is never fast enough. What we have done over the past 18 months demonstrates our commitment to making the systemic move from just a jail to a mental health service provider, re-entry program provider, and a facility that has the best correctional and medical staff around."

The Board of Supervisors reviewed each and every recommendation, but has yet to implement many of them.

On May 9, 2017, supervisors did approve a project to install suicide prevention barriers in the county’s Elmwood and Main jails on May 9, 2017.

Earlier this month the Sheriff's Office adopted new policies on the use of force negotiated with the Prison Law Office, according to attorney Don Specter.

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Specter’s firm filed a class-action lawsuit against Santa Clara County shortly after Tyree’s death, alleging sheriff's deputies routinely resorted to excessive use of force and solitary confinement.

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