Jail Deputies Sentenced to 15 Years to Life for Fatal Beating of Mentally Ill Inmate

Three Santa Clara County Sheriff's deputies were charged with killing mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree. From left: Rafael Rodriguez, Matthew Farris and Jereh Lubrin. (Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office)

Updated Friday at 2 p.m.

Three former Santa Clara County sheriff's deputies convicted of beating a mentally ill inmate to death in 2015 were sentenced Friday to 15 years to life in state prison.

Rafael Rodriguez, Matthew Farris and Jereh Lubrin were found guilty last year of killing Michael Tyree in his cell at the county's Main Jail.

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

A jury convicted them of second-degree murder.

Superior Court Judge David Cena said he felt the sentence of 15 to life was appropriate.

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“They inflicted injuries on Mr. Tyree that resulted in his death,” Cena said.

Defense attorneys for the three former jail deputies already have filed paperwork to appeal the decision, a process likely to take two years.

Tyree, 31, suffered from bipolar disorder and addiction. After he violated probation for a minor drug charge, a judge ordered him detained until he could be placed into psychiatric treatment.

But on Aug. 27, 2015, jail staff discovered Tyree dead in his cell, his naked body smeared with vomit and feces. The medical examiner found that he died from massive blunt-force trauma that caused his liver and spleen to rupture, injuries he could not have inflicted on himself.

Michael Tyree’s sister, Shannon Tyree, wasn’t able to make it to the San Jose courtroom Friday because her flight was canceled, but prosecutor Matt Braker read her letter in court. In it, she said she felt she had failed to help her younger cope with mental illness. She wrote:

I have a life sentence that started at 11 AM, August 27, 2015 when the coroner called to tell me Michael had died. Every day since then, I have thought of how forsaken he must have felt that night, how utterly alone, how terrified and I can’t forgive myself. I will never get a chance to make a different choice for Michael, to tell him I’m so sorry that I didn’t understand that he was so afraid and I’ll never have another chance to tell him how much I love him. I’m accountable for failing Michael. These three men walked into his cell and beat him to death. And they are accountable for that.

Tyree’s girlfriend, who is also the mother of his child, would not give her name and chose not to speak at the hearing, but looked relieved that the judge gave the maximum sentence to the former jail guards.

The deputies remained stoic, facing toward the judge until immediately after the proceeding, when family members, many of them weeping, called out to them, waving and blowing kisses. Then each turned and waved and called back. Farris appeared to be choking back tears.

After Friday’s hearing, Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen spoke to reporters from the courthouse steps.

“The trust in the authority that the jail guards had in this case was not used to protect Michael Tyree. Instead, it was used to beat and murder him,” Rosen said. “And for that they've been justly sentenced.”

Tyree’s murder exposed problems with how some county jails in California have handled a growing number of offenders with mental illness.

In Santa Clara County, his death led to a series of investigations into the treatment of inmates and spurred reforms.

Starting in February 2016, new deputies were required to complete a weeklong training in crisis intervention. All staff are required to take a two-day course on how to de-escalate conflict with inmates who suffer from mental illness.

In 2017, the Sheriff's Department adopted a new use-of-force policy and requires body-worn cameras for deputies who work in jails.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors created a plan to implement civilian oversight of the jails.

County officials also paid $3.6 million to Tyree’s family to settle a wrongful death lawsuit.