A former detention officer at the Harris County Jail was indicted Thursday and charged with felony manslaughter in the February 2021 death of a jail inmate, the first time criminal charges have been filed against a detention officer in an in-custody death at the jail.
Eric Niles Morales, 28, of Houston, is charged in the death of Jaquaree Simmons, a 23-year-old Houston man found unconscious in his cell during Winter Storm Uri on Feb. 17, 2021. A Harris County medical examiner ruled that Simmons died of blunt-force trauma to his head. Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez fired 11 detention officers and suspended six others in the wake of the investigation. Morales is the only one charged in the death.
Investigators said Simmons was arrested and booked into the jail on Feb. 10, 2021, on a charge of felon in possession of a weapon. Six days later, investigators said, Simmons used his clothes to clog his cell toilet, which caused it to overflow and flood his cell. Detention officers responded to Simmons’ cell to clean up the mess, which led to a physical confrontation between Simmons and detention officers.
Simmons was then left in the cell without clothing, which sheriff’s officials said is a violation of jail policy. When detention officers returned to the cell later that night, Simmons reportedly threw his meal tray at an officer and “charged at him,” according to the sheriff’s office. The officer then punched Simmons in the face and called for assistance to remove Simmons for a medical evaluation. Detention officers again used force in handcuffing and removing Simmons from the cell. It was in that confrontation that Simmons received “multiple blows to his head,” according to the sheriff’s office. Simmons received a medical evaluation and was later returned to his cell, where he was left unmonitored because of a power outage related to the winter storm and the failure of detention officers to conduct visual checks as required.
Simmons was found unresponsive and lying on his cell floor the next day and later pronounced dead at a local hospital.
The indictment charges that the 6’5”, 260-pound detention officer assaulted the 5’4”, 120-pound Simmons by kneeing him in the head, striking his head against a door and dropping him on his head, resulting in his death.
Assistant District Attorney Kimberly Clark, of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office Civil Rights Division, said county residents expect detention officers to treat inmates fairly and humanely.
“Regardless of why they are in the jail, inmates should be safe from unlawful attacks by the very people who are sworn to protect them and keep them secure,” Clark said. “Harris County will prosecute those who break the law inside the jail, regardless of which side of the bars they are on.”
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