- Associated Press - Saturday, January 7, 2017

DALLAS (AP) - A Dallas County Jail inmate was fatally beaten by his cellmate late last month, but the attacker said it wasn’t until he called jailers for help because the victim was “breathing hard” that they realized what had happened, a newspaper reported.

A state panel is investigating the Dec. 30 attack amid concerns that the jailers should have been paying closer attention, The Dallas Morning News reported (https://bit.ly/2inBerD ). The cell was in a section of the jail that houses inmates with mental health issues.

Javier Leal’s head was bashed in, his eye was cut and his jaw appeared to be broken during the attack. He was transported to a hospital and taken off life support the next day.

Although jails are required to notify the Texas Commission on Jail Standards within 24 hours of an inmate’s death, they are not required to tell the public.

The county sheriff’s department didn’t issue a news release about Leal’s death. It did confirm his death three days after the fact, but declined to answer questions about the two inmates’ classifications or the handling of them. The department said the death remained under investigation and it then released a statement saying the cellmates had been “involved in an altercation” and that staff “separated the two inmates.”

That’s a very different description of what happened than the aggressor’s account to sheriff’s investigations, the paper reported.

According to an affidavit, 39-year-old Patrick Martin said he had been transferred to Leal’s cell early on the morning of the attack. Leal was lying on the bottom bunk when Martin went to use the cell’s toilet and felt Leal’s “body heat,” flinched and punched Leal in the face “without provocation.” It says Leal fell from the bed to his knees and grabbed Martin’s waist, so Martin punched Leal’s face with both fists and hit him with “at least 30 elbow strikes.” Leal fell, striking his head on the toilet, and then Martin allegedly stomped him, the affidavit states.

Martin, who faces new charges in Leal’s death, described hearing Leal “breathing hard,” so he decided to push the intercom for help at 2:13 a.m., it states.

Diana Claitor, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, an inmate advocacy group, said the sheriff’s department statement “didn’t describe the type of attack this was.”

“It was vague and not too close to what their own officers described,” she said. “It does not sound like this was handled in a transparent manner. That lack of transparency, that kind of protective, defensive reaction - it’s definitely unfortunate when you’re dealing with citizens’ lives.”

Leal’s son, David Leal, questioned why it took so long for the jail staff to respond.

“For no one to have noticed until somebody called for help, that’s pretty shocking,” David Leal told the paper.

The head of the state jail commission said his agency will examine cell check logs, inmate classification records and investigative reports on the death and look for rules violations. One rule requires a check at least every 30 minutes for inmates with mental health issues.

“We do a review and report on every death in custody for county jails,” said Brandon Wood, the commission’s executive director.

Failure to abide by the regulations could result in the jail being found noncompliant, requiring the sheriff’s department to submit a plan to address the problems and show they have been fixed.

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Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com

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