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Grand Jury Clears Deputies in Jail Death

By Associated Press

Buffalo, NY – A grand jury cleared several Erie County jail deputies of criminal wrongdoing in the death of a mentally ill inmate, although a state commission said the death was preventable.

A state Commission of Correction report released Thursday said the July 5, 2002, incident involving 28-year-old Michael T. Bennett might have been prevented if he had received proper emergency mental health care at the holding center.

A diagnosed schizophrenic, Bennett died in a struggle involving at least six sheriff's deputies who were trying to take him from the jail to Erie County Medical Center.

Medical experts for the state determined Bennett died from traumatic asphyxia, contradicting the county medical examiner's finding of cardiac arrhythmia associated with coronary artery disease.

Bennett's mother, Reola Bennett, told The Buffalo News she remains distraught. She had called police to report that her son was acting strangely and that she feared he might crash his car.

Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark said Friday the grand jury thoroughly investigated on the question of criminally negligent homicide, heard dozens of witnesses and concluded last year there was no criminal behavior.

In a statement Friday, Sheriff Patrick Gallivan said the death was tragic, but he disagreed with the commission's findings.

Undersheriff Timothy Howard said Bennett suffered severe physical injuries when he began jumping off the bed in his cell and slamming his head against the cell's bars. Deputies tried to stop Bennett from hurting himself, he said.