In north Idaho, a 15-year-old boy sits in an isolated jail cell awaiting trial for murder. Eldon Samuel III is accused of shooting to death his father and younger brother in March. Juveniles accused of crimes like this are automatically charged as adults in Idaho. But now, Samuel’s lawyer and the ACLU are trying to get him moved out of solitary confinement at the adult county jail. They say his isolation amounts to “cruel and unusual” punishment. Correspondent Austin Jenkins reports.
Eldon Samuel has been locked up since the evening of March 24th.That’s when he allegedly used a handgun, a shotgun and a machete to murder his father and 13-year-old brother. He then called police. Spokane TV station KXLY reported the shocking crime.
KXLY News: “We are following breaking news in Coeur d’Alene. Our Ian Cull is on the scene of a double homicide….”
Samuel was quickly arrested. His lawyer says the spasm of violence followed a troubled childhood. Today, Samuel is locked up in a small holding cell in the Kootenai County Jail. The cell is roughly 9 by 12 or about the size of a standard area rug. Samuel is there 24 hours a day except to shower, meet with his lawyer or to use a concrete recreation area. According to court filings, the teenager has already spent close to three months in this isolated cell. John Adams is his public defender.
Adams: “It may be that he’s alleged to have committed some pretty terrible things here, but that doesn’t mean that we torture our children, that doesn’t mean we isolate them from the world and put them in a little square cement box.”
The Kootenai County Sheriff’s office runs the jail. It’s keeping Samuel in the isolated cell with the window covered to comply with something called the “sight and sound separation” rule. This is a state and federal requirement that juveniles held in adult lock-ups be kept separate. The cell may be separate, but his lawyer says it’s not quiet. It’s right next to the jail booking area which can hum with activity and chatter night and day. Even the Sheriff’s office doesn’t think Samuel belongs in its jail. At a recent court hearing, Sgt. Thomas Stangeland testified that Samuel would be better off at the county’s juvenile detention facility.
Stangeland: “They’re professionals in what they do. I just think that they can keep him housed by himself there so that he would be safe.”
Asked if he thinks his jail’s conditions are fair to a teenage boy, Sgt. Stangeland replied.
Stangeland: “I do not, sir.”
Samuel did spend several weeks in juvenile detention. He mingled there with other kids and got to attend school. Officials told the court he did well. In fact, almost everyone involved in this case seems to agree that Samuel belongs in the juvenile facility. At the recent court hearing, even the judge acknowledged the isolation cell is far from ideal.
Simpson: “It’s unfortunate to hold anybody in lockdown 23 hours a day, 24 hours a day.”
But Judge Benjamin Simpson said he wasn’t willing to take the risk that a murder defendant like Samuel could hurt another juvenile.
Simpson: “I think there’s a very small risk, but a very grave danger of some sort of a problem with other juveniles or with Mr. Samuel in the juvenile detention center.”
For that reason, in early July Judge Simpson ordered Eldon Samuel back to the Kootenai County Jail and his isolation cell. Now, Samuel’s lawyer and the ACLU are asking the courts to reverse that decision.
Eppink: “We should not be holding children in solitary confinement.”
Richard Eppink directs the ACLU of Idaho. He argues Eldon Samuel is being treated more harshly than some adult enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay. U.S. policy states that detainees there are only placed in solitary if they’re “non-compliant.” Eppink notes that by all accounts Samuel has been cooperative.
Eppink: “This is not the kind of thing that we expect in the United States, not the kind of thing we expect in Idaho and here it is happening in northern Idaho as we speak. That’s outrageous.”
In fact, a 2012 study by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch concluded that solitary confinement of juveniles is a “serious and widespread problem in the United States.” That same year, a U.S. Attorney General Task Force report determined that isolating youth in jails can have “devastating effects.” Eldon Samuel’s defense attorney John Adams says the isolation is already taking a toll on his client.
Adams: “His body is not responding well to being kept in this solitary isolation cell, his emotional state is deteriorating, and his mental state is deteriorating.”
Adams plans to be back in court next week to ask another judge to free Samuel from isolation and send the accused teenage killer back to juvenile detention. Samuel’s trial date has not yet been scheduled. If he’s convicted, he could be sentenced to juvenile corrections or an adult prison in Idaho.
Copyright 2014 Northwest News Network