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Lawsuit Claims Rikers Officers Ignored Detainee Who Died Following Overdose

Jose Mejia Martinez, 34, jailed on a shoplifting charge, died after multiple correction officers failed to seek medical help for three hours, a federal lawsuit charges.

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Jose Mejia Martinez was recorded on video ingesting a substance before his death on Rikers Island in 2021.

Southern District of New York Court Filing

A Rikers Island detainee in the midst of a fatal methadone overdose was left alone and unconscious in his cell for more than three hours after staggering around a jail in plain view of correction officers, a new lawsuit charges.

The lawsuit filed Sunday in Manhattan federal court alleges that multiple correction officers repeatedly ignored Jose Mejia Martinez, 34, as he struggled to stay upright before fellow incarcerated people guided him to his cell inside the George Motchan Detention Center, where he died June 10, 2021.

“I hope this brings justice for my son,” his mother, Martha Martinez, told THE CITY through an interpreter. “He was asking for help and no one helped.” 

Mejia Martinez had arrived in New York at age 20 from the Dominican Republic, where he worked fixing air conditioners. He later took a temporary gig at Yankees Stadium and called his mother to brag about it, she remembered. 

“He loved listening to salsa, merengue, bachata and even enjoyed reggaeton,” Martha Martinez told THE CITY.

But he also struggled with substance abuse, testing positive for cocaine when he was first locked up on Rikers Island, according to the suit, which adds that he told medical staff of his past use of K2, opioids, cannabis and alcohol.

His Last Day

The lawsuit lays out a detailed timeline of his 28th and final day inside one of the eight facilities on Rikers, where he allegedly walked into another detainee’s unlocked jail cell at 10:09 a.m. and ingested methadone in an area that should have been supervised. 

Intoxicated, Mejia Martinez then struggled to make his way to the top tier of the jail, repeatedly leaning over and clutching his head, according to the suit.

Still images of Rikers video footage that were included in court papers show a correction officer walking past Mejia Martinez while he was slumped over a stairwell. The suit adds that no one offered medication that could have reversed the overdose, though Naloxone was available. Instead, it fell to fellow detainees to help him back to his cell.

Jose Mejia Martinez was recorded on video staggering and leaning over a stairwell on Rikers Island before his death in 2021.

Southern District of New York court filing

After more than three hours in the cell, another incarcerated individual found Mejia Martinez and called for help. But court papers say correction officers “stood idly by” for at least 10 minutes while waiting for medical workers to arrive.

“It was too late — Mr. Mejia Martinez was already dead and showing signs of rigor mortis by the time medical staff arrived at his cell,” the suit says.

His death and “hours of suffering,” were “preventable” and “contrary to the norms of a civilized society,” the suit says, pointing to “deficient supervision” in city jails where staff fail “to provide emergency first aid to incarcerated people.”

“Mr. Mejia Martinez’s death was not only caused by individual correction officers, deliberate indifference to his serious medical needs — it was also the direct result of the city of New York’s widespread and persistent policies, customs and practices of deficient supervision in its jails,” the court papers say.

Mejia Martinez, who had been jailed on a parole violation for allegedly stealing beer, was among 15 people to die in city lockups in 2021. That figure jumped to 19 last year — the highest rate in decades — and three have died behind bars so far in 2023.

Because Mejia Martinez was known to have a history of substance abuse, he was referred to A Road Not Taken (ARNT), a substance abuse program on Rikers. But jail records cited in the lawsuit show he never joined the program.

He also was not prescribed methadone, according to jail records.

Mejia Martinez reported “low-level anxiety related to lack of access to cocaine use, after daily use of $100” of cocaine, the lawsuit said. 

A Board of Correction review into his case said “he died of acute methadone intoxication after ingesting a substance from two cups given to him by others in custody.”

Jail investigators found approximately 30 pills during a search of his belongings, the report added. 

Skyrocketing Claims

The lawsuit charges that jail officials violated his constitutional rights by denying him proper medical care and treatment during his time on Rikers Island. It seeks damages determined by a judge or jury. 

Jose Mejia Martinez celebrated his 34th birthday in February 2021 and died on Rikers Island that June after being locked up on a parole violation.

Courtesy of Martinez Family

“The city has allowed DOC staff to sit by and let incarcerated people die in medical emergencies, and for years it has done nothing,” said Katie Rosenfeld and Nick Bourland, lawyers at Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel, the firm that filed the lawsuit. 

They noted he was locked up on a nonviolent parole violation and had a history of mental illness. 

“How many more people need to die as prisoners on Rikers Island from entirely preventable causes before the City acts?” the lawyers said in a statement. 

The number of personal injury claims against the Department of Correction has exploded over the last decade, from 1,188 in fiscal year 2010 to 3,330 in fiscal year 2022, according to the city Comptroller’s Office.

Payouts over that period have spiked from a total of $8.5 million in 2010 to $37.2 million  in 2022, the comptroller’s claim report shows.

The Mejia Martinez lawsuit cites four correction officers who were on duty and did nothing to assist before his death. 

One of the officers is no longer working for the department and two others have pending charges, according to Patrick Rocchio, a spokesperson for the department, who refused to disclose details of the disciplinary case against the officers. 

Mejia-Martinez’s mother said she has struggled with grief daily since her son’s passing. 

“I feel kind of out of control and not myself,” she said, noting that days before his passing, she had a feeling that something was wrong.

“By the time I found out, I knew it was coming from somewhere. I’m heartbroken.” 

When he was younger, he’d always call her “my queen,” she added.  “He was always happy.”

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