November 6, 2003
By Zachary R. Dowdy
Just over three years ago, James Gunther, veteran emergency services New York City police officer, looped a bed sheet around a clothing hook at the Nassau County jail and hanged himself.
It was one in a string of suicides at the Nassau County and Suffolk County jails in the past few years - often among inmates like Gunther, 45, who had mental illnesses. Gunther"s September 2000 suicide surprised officials because he used a hook in his cell designed to be 'suicide-proof.'
On Tuesday, Nassau County and Nassau University Medical Center, which provides mental health care to inmates, agreed to settle a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Gunther"s family by paying them $875,000 in damages, said the family's attorney, Todd Greenberg of Forest Hills.
The settlement came several days into testimony at a civil trial before U.S. District Court Judge Arthur D. Spatt in Central Islip.
'We are pleased with the outcome,' Greenberg said. 'And the family is very happy that the county and hospital have acknowledged that they didn't give proper supervision to Mr. Gunther and they are hoping this will not happen in the future.'
Gunther"s family could not be reached for comment. However, county officials said they settled out of fear a jury could award a higher amount in damages.
'I am glad that this case is behind us and I know that this will not happen again in the same way,' said Lorna Goodman, the attorney for Nassau County. She said jail officials acted on medical advice that Gunther was 'fit for confinement,' and not a high suicide risk.
Gunther, of Centereach, was arrested in July 2000 for violating orders of protection to stay away from a former wife.
Greenberg said Gunther, whose arrest accelerated a downward spiral that began when his marriage fell apart, had tried to commit suicide three times.
Gunther also attempted suicide during one of two other stints at the East Meadow facility when he swallowed pills stolen from an inmate.
Nine months before Gunther"s death, Lorecia Cox, 39, of Hempstead, who was arrested for writing a bad check, hanged herself on the same type of hook at the jail.
Greenberg said a county health care coordinator, who had participated in the investigation into Cox"s death, testified she did not know how Cox had killed herself until after Gunther"s death was probed.
After Gunther"s death, Greenberg and Goodman said, the jail removed the 'suicide-proof' hooks from cells.
Cox"s family settled a lawsuit against the county for $200,000 last year.
Also at issue, Greenberg said, was whether jail officials were negligent in watching Gunther.
He was on a mental observation tier but was not watched 'constantly,' Greenberg said. While Gunther may have been checked intermittently every 15 minutes or so, Greenberg said, it only takes three to five minutes to commit suicide.
'Hopefully,' he said, 'this case will make all persons involved aware of the need for proper supervision of mentally ill inmates at the jail.'