Dozens of pages of police and hospital records appear not to have convinced a trial lawyer that Sam See, the late Yale assistant professor, died because of neglect or mistreatment by authorities, as some of his family members and friends have suggested.
See died last fall on Nov. 24 in the Union Avenue Detention Center, a state lock-up facility housed in the headquarters of the New Haven Police Department. He was placed there the previous evening following a domestic dispute with his husband, which led to a tussle with police that left a deep cut above his left eye.
He was taken to Yale-New Haven Hospital, where his cut was sutured, then locked in Cell B-31 of the detention center. It was a Saturday evening, five days before Thanksgiving. Roughly 10 hours later, he died of a heart attack induced by acute methamphetamine and amphetamine intoxication, a toxicologist later determined.
He was 34, a scholar of modernist literature and a faculty member in the English department since 2009.
In the wake of the professor’s death — which went unreported by police for three days — family members, friends and colleagues struggled to come to grips with the details of See’s incarceration and the bewildering circumstances that defined the end of his life. As medical officials waited for a toxicology report to determine a cause of death, some asked whether he had been brutalized by police or neglected by judicial marshals required to make rounds in the detention center every 15 minutes.
Pointing to medical documents showing that the late professor’s vital signs were normal at the hospital hours before his death, See’s sister, Kelly Flanagan, said in January the family was investigating a possible wrongful death suit — against police, judicial marshals and hospital staff. An attorney for See’s estate, David Rosen LAW ’69, a visiting clinical lecturer at Yale Law School, would say only that he was “working with the family to find out whatever can be learned about Sam See’s death.”
That process involved subpoenaing New Haven Police Department work rosters, individual officer reports and the transcript of the 911 call that brought police to See’s Wooster Square home, among other documents. In the 911 call — made by See’s sister in California — Flanagan cautioned police that her brother suffered from a mental illness, a warning that was overlooked when a judicial marshal later recorded the inmate suffered from no mental illness or medical problem.
Based on conversations with attorneys, See’s family members said they do not believe a suit will arise from the investigation, though some said this legal conclusion does not put their concerns to rest.
WEIGHING A CLAIM
Connecticut law gives administrators of a deceased person’s estate two years to file a wrongful death claim, though certain circumstances can permit legal action within five years of the date of death.
But See’s brother, Darin See, said toward the end of the summer that such a claim would not be filed. “There are no plans to pursue any actions,” he said in an email. Flanagan and Sturdivant said it is their understanding that attorneys have lost interest in pursuing a case.
Reached this week, Rosen would not discuss any details of See’s death, confirming only that he is still representing the family. Another lawyer, Andrew Knott of Cheshire-based Knott & Knott, is the fiduciary of the estate, appointed by New Haven Probate Court to handle any remaining assets tied to See’s name.
The two lawyers are both doing legal work on behalf of the family — Knott handling the technical matters of the estate and Rosen investigating a potential course of action against authorities, Knott explained. His work is ongoing, he said, declining to speak on behalf of Rosen and his legal probe.
“This is pretty much a pro bono case for me,” said Knott, who was appointed by the court. If a case were to recover damages for the family, Knott said, he will receive a commission. But he is involved “mainly to ease the pain for the family,” he said.
Knott is overseeing the liquidation of remaining assets — including a car, paintings and a piano left in See’s home at 324 John St.
TEN MONTHS, MANY QUESTIONS
As the opportunities for legal redress appear to dwindle, questions remain for See’s family members — questions about why drugs were not detected at the hospital and about why alleged signs of a struggle in his cell did not elicit a response from judicial marshals.
Above all, though, nearly 10 months after See died, it is grief that remains.
“I still cry every day,” See’s mother, Ann Sturdivant, said in a phone interview from her home in Washington State. “Nothing has changed how I feel about Sam — he was my boy, he made me smile and laugh.”
The hardest thing, she said, is seeing in retrospect how much help her son needed, as the extent of his addiction to methamphetamines and other drugs was made manifest by hospital reports. These reports document more than a half dozen visits to Yale-New Haven Hospital in the eight months before his death. See was on unpaid leave from Yale in the fall of 2013 following a teaching leave in the spring.
Sturdivant said her concerns about the way her son was treated have not been assuaged by a spring judicial branch report clearing marshals of responsibility. She alleged numerous inconsistencies in the report, accusing authorities of lying about a conversation in which she reportedly told a marshal she would bring See his medication in jail. Sturdivant claims she never said this — that her physical distance from New Haven would have made such a statement absurd. This confusion illustrates the carelessness with which marshals handled her son, she said.
Authorities’ position on the case is unambiguous, however.
“There is no evidence to support the fact Samuel See’s death … was the result of negligence or inattention by Judicial Marshal Services staff,” the Judicial Branch’s investigation concludes. A police department internal affairs report comes to the same conclusion about officers involved in See’s arrest.
Video surveillance tapes from the detention facility, which Sturdivant and Flanagan both said they have reviewed, suggest that See died at about 4:45 a.m., a full hour and 15 minutes before he was discovered lifeless by marshals, they said. At that time, Flanagan said, he appears to be moving around before his body seems to suddenly “release,” and he does not move again. Immediately prior, she said, a marshal walks by his cell, then returns to look more closely.
“He’s not just looking, he’s really looking,” she said. “It’s obvious something was wrong, and nothing is done.”
The News has not independently reviewed the surveillance tapes. The state’s report does indicate that a marshal looked into See’s cell, proceeded past and then turned back to check again, but at about 5 a.m. When investigators asked why the marshal had returned to the cell a second time, he said he perhaps did not get a clear look and went back to check again.
The marshal said See was “just laying on the top bunk like he was sleeping,” adding that his right arm was “possibly hanging” off the bunk but that “nothing seemed odd.” This is the same marshal who had a conversation with See an hour earlier, later reporting that the inmate looked like a “concentration camp person.”
See never expressed pain or asked for medical assistance, marshals told investigators.
Flanagan has prepared scores of questions for attorneys, as well as for a pathologist at Brown University who performed an independent autopsy at the request of the family. Her questions range from inquiries into the precise level of methamphetamines found in her brother’s body to the scope of care he received at the hospital prior to his incarceration.
So far, she said, she has received unsatisfactory responses — and her patience is wearing thin.
“How can this not be a wrongful death case?” she wondered. “What happened is so wrong.”
See’s life was celebrated on campus at a January memorial in Battell Chapel.