Metro-East News

St. Clair County could have prevented suicide of inmate who hanged self, lawsuit says

Damon Stidimire
Damon Stidimire

St. Clair County jailers should have done more to prevent the suicide of a 19-year-old who had a history of mental health problems and hanged himself in a cell, according to a wrongful-death suit filed by his estate.

Damon E. Stidimire, 19, hanged himself four days after he was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, according to the lawsuit. The suit alleges that the jail and county failed to screen Stidimire properly in his booking evaluation, and that jailers ignored his distress and suicidal risk factors.

County officials either declined to comment or did not return messages seeking comment.

Stidimire had been in and out of the justice system since 2006, and the lawsuit said the county “failed to effectively communicate” information it had on his childhood traumas and mental health issues, as well as his elevated risk of suicide. The lawsuit alleges the county had plenty of information on his mental health needs, and his elevated risk for suicide, and did not respond to Stidimire’s “obvious signs of distress and risk factors and failed to take any efforts to appropriately supervise him or protect him from the risk of suicide.”

At 9 years old, Stidimire was taken from his mother’s custody, and placed in various relatives’ homes and several foster homes, according to the lawsuit.

“He also spent much of his youth cycling in and out of psychiatric treatment centers where he received care for his serious mental illness and the juvenile justice system,” according to the lawsuit. “Damon Stidimire lived through a traumatic childhood.”

The lawsuit alleges that the jail has inadequate suicide-prevention policies and practices, and that officers only focus on reactive steps to take if an inmate reports being suicidal. There’s no guidance on how to determine if someone is suicidal, according to the lawsuit, or how to recognize risk factors. It also claimed the guards who were watching Stidimire the day of his death did not properly conduct cell checks, and did not immediately notice he had hung himself.

Stidimire committed suicide on Oct. 29, 2015 — the third person to successfully do so in 17 months, according to the suit. Thirteen others attempted suicide in that same time frame, according to the lawsuit.

“We want the lawsuit to shed light on the ineffective policies and practices at the jail, which have resulted in the deaths of a number of inmates,” said the attorney of Stidimire’s estate, Vanessa del Valle. “We hope that, as a result of the lawsuit, that the jail changes its suicide prevention policies so this can be prevented in the future.”

The lawsuit was filed against St. Clair County Sheriff Rick Watson, jail superintendent Major Phillip McLaurin, the county itself and three officers in the jail. Watson declined to comment because the litigation is still pending. State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly also declined to comment. County Chairman Mark Kern did not respond for comment.

Stidimire’s attorneys are requesting the court award the family compensatory damages, attorneys fees and punitive damages against each defendant. No specific dollar amounts are listed in the suit.