Fort Worth

Family sues Tarrant County over death of jail inmate

The family of a mentally ill inmate who was found hanged in the Tarrant County Jail in March 2012 is suing the county in federal court, saying officials violated the man’s civil rights when it didn’t do more to protect him while he was behind bars.

Steven Lawayne Nelson, who is on Death Row for the beating death of an Arlington minister, was indicted on a murder charge in the jail hanging death of Jonathan Holden, 30.

In their suit, Holden’s family describes Nelson as a “violent, high-risk … mentally unstable” inmate.

U.S. District Judge John McBryde declined the county’s request to dismiss the Holden family’s suit, and in a June 20 ruling ordered the county and the attorneys representing Jennifer Ciravolo, Holden’s sister who filed the lawsuit, to discuss a settlement as they also prepare for trial.

Tarrant County commissioners are scheduled to discuss Ciravolo’s case in executive session today and could reach a settlement, attorneys representing Ciravolo said.

In an amended complaint filed in May, Holden’s family says jailers and other county officials violated Holden’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act by not providing for him to be placed in an area designated for nonviolent inmates where he could be monitored by mental health professionals.

Instead, he was housed in the maximum security area near Nelson, who was awaiting trial in the slaying of the Rev. Clint Dobson. Nelson was convicted in October 2012 and sentenced to death.

In the indictment in Holden’s death, Nelson is accused of luring Holden over to the bars of his cell and then hanging him with a blanket.

Ciravolo’s suit says the county did not notify her of her brother’s arrest or of his death despite being listed as an emergency contact. Holden was eventually buried in a Tarrant County pauper’s grave instead of the family’s plot in Oklahoma.

Ciravolo wants her brother’s body exhumed for proper burial.

Brian McGiverin, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project who is representing Ciravolo, said Jonathan Holden was a victim because of his mental illness.

“Mr. Holden had a long history of mental health problems which left him in a position where he was very vulnerable and in a confused state,” McGiverin said.

The county had an obligation to place Holden in an area of the jail designated for inmates who are nonviolent and to protect him while he was in jail, McGiverin said.

Melody McDonald, a spokeswoman for the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, said county officials cannot comment while litigation is pending.

In its response to the lawsuit, the county denied that Holden’s rights were violated and said that he was in protective custody from the time he was booked into jail on March 6, 2012, until March 19, the day he was found hanged in his cell.

Assistant District Attorney Russell Friemel wrote that Holden was placed on “suicide precaution” but that psychiatrists from Mental Health Mental Retardation, the agency that contracts with the jail, recommended that he be taken off suicide prevention and moved to single-cell housing.

Friemel also said in court documents that Holden was transferred into more of the general population on March 17 after he struck a jailer with his fist.

The county also said that Holden did not list an emergency contact and that after his death, the medical examiner’s office tried repeatedly to reach his next of kin.

McGiverin said that Holden was taken to jail after he was arrested in Westlake on suspicion of breaking into a car to keep warm and that his sister was listed as an emergency contact.

The suit also says that despite having knowledge of Holden’s disability, jail officials knowingly placed him near Nelson, who was described as a schizophrenic sociopath.

McGiverin said that although Nelson was violent and unstable, he was allowed outside of his cell and that he had janitorial duties.

According to court documents, Nelson used a broom to provoke Holden, who remained in his cell. Nelson then used blankets to fashion a noose. He lured Holden toward the bars, put the noose around his neck and lifted Holden off the ground, the documents allege. Holden was found hanging in his cell.

Investigators found Nelson’s DNA under Holden’s fingernails.

“The tragedy here is that Mr. Holden didn’t have to die,” McGiverin said. “He didn’t have to be housed near someone that dangerous.”

This article includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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