In July 2009, the estate of an East Orange woman received a total of $100,000 to settle a lawsuit charging that she was falsely arrested and subsequently died while in custody. Of the $100,000, $2,000 was paid by Essex County, $10,000 was paid by the City of East Orange and the remaining $88,000 was paid by Correctional Health Services, Inc., a private contractor providing prison health services to the Essex County Correctional Facility.

According to the lawsuit, filed in state court on August 8, 2008 and later transferred to federal court, the deceased, Barbara Cheryl Patrick, was arrested while visiting her deceased mother’s East Orange residence on August 8, 2007. According to the suit, Patrick was her mother’s sole child and heir and she was at her mother’s residence to attend to affairs related to the estate.

During her visit, East Orange Police Officer S. L. Thigpen (probably Sanford Thigpen) allegedly arrested her for burglary and theft despite Patrick having told Thigpen that she was lawfully in the residence. Her bail was reportedly set at $25,000 and on August 9, 2007, she was transferred to the Essex County Correctional Facility. On August 12, 2007, while still in custody, she reportedly died. An autopsy report allegedly indicated that Patrick “suffered from injuries consisting of three broken ribs.” The lawsuit further alleges that Patrick did not have broken ribs prior to her arrest and that “it is unclear whether those injuries were sustained while in the custody of” East Orange Police or the Essex County Correctional Facility.

Also named in the suit were East Orange Police Sergeant A. Y. Sanchez (probably Alejandro Sanchez), East Orange Police Sergeant Darryl Wright and East Orange Police Detective John Olivera.

The case is captioned Chekirra D. Mitchell a/k/a Chekirra Patrick et al v. City of East Orange, et al Case No. 08-cv-05079-JLL. The plaintiff’s lawyer was Cynthia H. Hardaway, Esq. of Newark. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.

None of Mitchell’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement expressly states that the $100,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by the City or County Officials or the private contractor. All that is known for sure is that these defendants, and perhaps their insurers, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay Mitchell and her lawyer $100,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to [email protected]