Patient’s Death After Scuffle Ruled a Homicide

Joshua Messier’s death in May at the state hospital
is being investigated by the Plymouth district attorney’s office.

By Jonathan Saltzman and Milton J. Valencia
The Boston Globe, March 10, 2010

The death of a psychiatric patient who scuffled with correction officers at Bridgewater State Hospital in May has been ruled a homicide, according to a death certificate that found 23-year-old Joshua Messier had suffered “blunt impact of head and compression of chest’’ while being restrained by guards.

The homicide ruling, by the state medical examiner’s office, differs from the description offered by prison officials last spring. Spokeswoman Diane Wiffin said then, “There is no indication that there was any excessive force at this time.’’

Hospital records obtained by the Globe yesterday show that Messier was brought to the emergency room of Brockton Hospital May 4 in cardiac arrest, with a bruise on his forehead and cheek; dried blood on his nostrils and in his hair; ligature marks or indentations on his neck, wrists, and ankles; and a scrape on his eyebrows.

Wiffin pledged at the time that prosecutors, the State Police, and the Massachusetts Department of Correction would review Messier’s death, and yesterday she said in a brief statement that the case remains under investigation by Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz. She also said “actions taken by DOC medical and security staff were done in accordance with standard procedure.’’

Bridget Norton Middleton, a spokeswoman for Cruz, declined to say when she expects her office’s investigation to conclude, but said the death is “certainly something that we’re actively looking at.’’ Middleton said officials had been awaiting the medical examiner’s ruling on the cause of death; that ruling was issued Feb. 3, and a copy was obtained by the Globe yesterday.

Steve Kenneway, president of the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union, said he heard that Messier assaulted two officers and that other officers then helped subdue him. Messier, he said, was then placed in restraints and walked across a large yard to an indoor facility. It was there that he suffered heart failure, Kenneway said.

“It was a clean use of force,’’ he said. “The last thing we want the public to think is an inmate was murdered by a correctional officer. That’s clearly not the case.’’

Kenneway, whose association represents about 5,000 correction officers, said the medical examiner’s designation of the death as a homicide was simply a legal term to indicate that someone was involved in Messier’s death.

Messier was a country club attendant from Charlton who graduated from Shepherd Hill Regional High School and briefly attended the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He was diagnosed about six years ago with schizophrenia and paranoia, said his mother, Lisa Messier.

Messier had been charged after allegedly hitting three staff members at the Harrington Memorial Hospital psychiatric ward in Southbridge while undergoing treatment. A judge ordered him to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, and he had been at Bridgewater State Hospital for more than a month when he died.

Bridgewater State is run by the Department of Correction and is supposed to be a “safe, secure, and humane environment to all persons requiring specialized care and treatment,’’ according to the state’s website. Patients have been charged with or convicted of crimes and have “the potential for endangering themselves or others,’’ the site says.

Lisa Messier said she had feared for her son’s safety at Bridgewater and was devastated by his death, which occurred less than two hours after she had visited him at the hospital.

“It’s a nightmare that people have to go through this, and all my son needed was some help,’’ she said. “This shouldn’t have happened.’’

She said she was relieved when she got a call from the medical examiner’s office recently and was read a copy of the death certificate, because, she said, it confirmed her suspicions that her son had been killed. The death certificate was signed by Dr. Mindy J. Hull, a pathologist for the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

“I’m glad the truth is in there,’’ Lisa Messier said. She said she hopes someone is charged in her son’s death.

The Messier family has retained Andrew C. Meyer Jr., a Boston personal injury and medical malpractice lawyer. Meyer has written state Attorney General Martha Coakley that the Messier family intends to file a wrongful-death suit against the state in federal court. He said in an interview yesterday that patients and relatives have told Lisa Messier that correction officers took her son “into a back room and caused him this harm.’’

“They clearly not only failed to protect him from himself—this is a boy who had mental disabilities and needed some attention—they harmed him with what appears to be extraordinary force, causing his death,’’ Meyer said.

Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, called for an independent review of Messier’s death. She called his placement at Bridgewater State an example of the “criminalization of mental illness,’’ with inmates sent to the correctional facility because the mental health system has failed to help them.

“This is a hospital,’’ she said. “He was someone who needed to be protected and cared for and made well enough to leave.’’

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