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Jury awards $1 million to family of Chicago woman who died in cell

May Molinwith her 1-year-old granddaughter baby's birthday  2004.

May Molina with her 1-year-old granddaughter on the baby's birthday in 2004.

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Updated: November 4, 2013 8:38PM

The Chicago Police Department’s practice of denying arrestees medical treatment for up to 48 hours is unconstitutional, according to a federal jury which Monday awarded $1 million in damages to the family of a seriously ill woman who died in police custody.

Lawyers for the family of May Molina hailed the verdict as a landmark ruling that will force the City of Chicago to change the way it handles suspects who are held for up to two days in police cells.

“This is a strong statement that they’ll have to change,” attorney John Loevy said Monday evening after the city and all seven Chicago cops who were accused of failing to care for Molina were found liable at the end of a three-week civil trial.

“Chicago is going to have to come into line with the way the rest of the nation provides medical care to detainees,” Loevy said.

Molina, an asthmatic, diabetic and obese 55-year-old community activist, died in the North Side Town Hall district police station in 2004 after officers repeatedly ignored warnings that she needed medical help.

Warnings from Molina’s lawyer, five to 10 callers and Molina herself that she was seriously ill and needed to see a doctor all went unheeded before she died after more than 24 hours in custody, evidence showed.

The city argued during the trial that Molina had “only herself to blame” because she swallowed six foil wraps of heroin before she was arrested during a raid on her home, then refused medical attention.

Though comparable large U.S. cities typically transfer arrestees to a jail with medically trained staff within four hours, Chicago’s policy of holding detainees in police cells for up to two days was a viable alternative because they can be driven to hospital if they need help, city attorneys said.

But Loevy said that whether Molina died because of the heroin or because she had been denied her medication for more than a day was irrelevant. Once police took Molina into custody, they had a duty to ensure she got medical help, he successfully argued, adding that Chicago’s policy was unworkable in the real world.

Molina’s son, Sal Ortiz, said he felt vindicated by the verdict Monday evening and he hopes his family’s long battle will save lives.

Though the $1 million award was less than the $6 million to $9 million Loevy asked for, “We got justice for my mom,” Ortiz said.

In an emailed statement, city law department spokesman Roderick Drew said, “We are disappointed with the verdict and will be reviewing all available options, including filing an appeal.”


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