The recent unexplained death of a young adult jail inmate adds fuel to the ongoing fire within Orange County law enforcement.
On Monday it was reported that the family of Danny Pham, a Westminster resident, has filed a claim against the County for his death.
Pham died July 3, just days before he was scheduled to be released from a six month sentence for auto theft.
The OC Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail, and the OC prosecutor, have not released any information concerning the details of Pham’s death in custody.
However, the OC Sheriff has placed five deputies on paid leave pending dual investigations by the Sheriff’s Department and the OC District Attorney’s office into the causes of Pham’s death.
The facts surrounding Pham’s death provide good reason for the investigations.
Pham was in good health and had no history of violent behavior. However, he had been placed by OC Jail deputies alone in a cell with Marvin Magallanes, who had confessed to killing two transients in the last year.
According to the OC Register, Magallanes wanted to plead guilty to the two murders in May, but the judge ordered a psychiatric examination. The OC Register reported that Magallanes’ brother indicated he had a history of mental illness, including depression, substance abuse and hallucinations.
Magallanes achieved notoriety last year for being convicted of attempting to crash into the Calabasas home of celebrity Kylie Jenner. Stories of Magallanes’ numerous attempts to pursue Jenner were well covered in the media.
It was also reported at the time he had broken out of a “lock-down” psychiatric institution during one of several psychiatric holds he had been placed under.
Given Magallanes’ well-known history of mental illness, one can only wonder what was going on in the minds of his OC jailers when they placed Pham into his jail cell.
Pham’s death came only a few days following the release of a June ACLU report exposing inhumane and unsafe conditions at the OC jail facilities.
One of the specific findings of the report was that inmate assaults on fellow inmates rose an alarming 47 percent in the four-year period ending in 2014. Another finding was that too many mentally ill inmates were being housed in the general jail population instead of on the mental health ward.
Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, while disputing the accuracy of the ACLU report, nevertheless announced within hours of its release that she would not be seeking another term as Sheriff next year.
Hutchens’ decision to step down comes amidst several other investigations into her department and the OC DA. Federal and State agencies are investigating the agencies for their secret and systemic use of jail informants and the agencies’ efforts to cover-up their unlawful practices.
It should now be clear to all that independent civilian oversight of our OC law enforcement agencies is long overdue.
Joel Block is a retired attorney and freelance writer living in Rossmoor.