Surprise, surprise: The Orange County District Attorney's office (OCDA) has found no “criminal culpability” on the part of jail authorities in the death of inmate Angel Ponce last year. The five-page report into the matter was delivered to Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and Santa Ana Police Chief Carlos Rojas in advance of being made available to the public today.
Ponce, noted as a transient on parole for rape, was arrested shortly after noon on April 27, 2012 by Santa Ana police officer Anthony Romero for drinking a 32-ounce beer in front of a 7-Eleven.
He spent nine hours in custody between Santa Ana City Jail and Orange County Jail before being released and dying the morning after. Were authorities criminally negligent in the death? The OCDA says no.
According to the report, Ponce was medically evaluated at Santa Ana City Jail and told a custodial officer that he suffered from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and anxiety. He didn't complain of feeling ill or suicidal, listed his medications and was placed in a private cell where the man began vomiting. Another custodial officer asked if Ponce was alright and after he indicated he was, transferred the man to Orange County Jail.
At the facility, Ponce was screened again by a registered nurse, admitted to being a regular drinker, listed the medications he took for his mental health conditions and said he had Hepatitis C. While in a medical jail ward wearing a “safety gown,” Ponce then told Deputy Russell Egbert that he wanted to kill himself. The DA report offers no insight into what Egbert did or didn't do after that. Ponce said he wasn't feeling well, but didn't request any medical attention.
Half-an-hour later, another RN noted the inmate was hearing voices but denied being a danger to himself or others, solely expressing regret at going through the system again. Taking him for his word, Ponce was released shortly thereafter at 9:33 p.m.
Ponce then walked a block to Angels Community Park, took to a bench with a friend and slept through the night. He awoke the next day, but became unresponsive later that morning on April 28, 2012. When paramedics arrived he had no pulse, wasn't breathing and pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
The autopsy performed by Dr. Joseph Cohen noted the cause of death for the 50-year-old being as a result of “chronic alcoholism with steatosis and fibrosis of the liver–or in other words “natural causes.”
In assessing potential charges of criminal negligence, the OCDA found no grounds for them. “All officers, deputies and nurses acted as an ordinary careful person would act in the same situation,” the report says. “There is no evidence inmate Ponce needed immediate medical care while he was in custody at SAPD and Orange County Jail.”
The OCDA investigative letter can be read in its entirety online.
Follow Gabriel San Román on Twitter @dpalabraz