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Luis Lopez died in a Wahiawa jail cell on Jan. 7, 2012, hours after being arrested by Honolulu police officers for driving under the influence.
He had a gash on his forehead and a white long-sleeved shirt tied around his neck. The shirt was attached to the holding cell door and Lopez, 27, was found slumped over, sitting on the ground. The police and the medical examiner ruled his death a suicide.
Lopez’s family believed he was murdered, and filed a lawsuit in state court on Dec. 24, 2013, alleging that possibility. They also claimed that if Lopez had in fact killed himself, the officers on duty at the station should have been able to prevent it.
On Wednesday, the Honolulu City Council unanimously approved a $190,000 settlement with Lopez’s family.
“I’m happy with the resolution of this case because it provides closure for his wife, two children and his parents and in-laws,” the family’s attorney, Myles Breiner, said.
He added that the money will be used to set up an educational fund for Lopez’s kids. “What’s missing from all this is accountability. That’s the part that’s still troubling for my client, the decedent’s wife, as well as the entire family. How did this happen and who was responsible?”
Lopez was arrested at 4:10 a.m. that January day on suspicion of driving under the influence. According to court records, he initially was taken to the Wahiawa Police Station before going to a nearby hospital around 5 a.m. to receive treatment for a gash on his forehead.
The lawsuit states Lopez was injured during his arrest. Authorities said the wound came from him slamming his head on the plexiglass window between the front and back seats of the police cruiser that was taking him to jail.
Lopez refused treatment at Wahiawa General Hospital for the cut to his forehead, according to the lawsuit, and was taken back to the police station and placed in a holding cell by himself. Breiner said Lopez was wearing a black tank top and black shorts at the time.
At around 6:30 a.m., paramedics were called to the station to treat another inmate. One of the responding EMTs said that she saw Lopez lying on the ground at the time, and that he told her that he was cold.
Thirty-five minutes later, an HPD officer found him unresponsive inside his cell with a white shirt tied around his neck. Lopez was pronounced dead at the Wahiawa General Hospital at 7:48 a.m. The Honolulu Medical Examiner ruled the death a suicide by hanging.
But Breiner said there were a number of irregularities regarding Lopez’s death. Lopez was over 6 feet tall and weighed over 200 pounds, which made it hard to believe he could hang himself simply by sitting down on the ground with a shirt tied to a cell door, the attorney said.
According to Breiner, the cotton shirt did not belong to Lopez and should not have been in the cell in the first place because officers are supposed to remove items that can be fashioned into a noose, such as belts and shoelaces.
Breiner said there were ligature marks on Lopez’s neck that didn’t seem to match the shirt. It didn’t look like self-induced strangulation, he said. A second autopsy performed as part of his investigation was inconclusive.
He wanted his investigators, who were retired police detectives, to go to the holding cell where Lopez died and perform a reenactment. But each time he had a date scheduled it was cancelled by city attorneys, he said.
Breiner says he wasn’t able to get into the cell until June 30, 2015, but by then the department had retrofitted all the cell doors to remove any gaps that a shirt might fit through and installed security cameras inside each of the holding areas.
“The fact that they made these changes is an acknowledgement that there was a problem,” Breiner said. “What’s troubling is that they chose to do this while we were in the middle of litigation.”
The jail cell renovation effectively ended Breiner’s investigation into the possibility that Lopez was murdered. He said he also couldn’t use the fact that HPD had updated its holding area to prove further liability in the case. What was initially a $5 million settlement claim was reduced to a $190,000 agreement.
A spokesperson for the Honolulu Police Department directed all questions to city attorneys. Officials from Honolulu Corporation Counsel were unavailable for comment.
You can read the original complaint here: