A class of his own

Jury conviction on numerous charges won’t affect pending class action lawsuit on behalf of other jail inmates, attorney says

Armani Lee

Armani Lee

Photo courtesy of the Sacramento Police Department

Armani Lee writhed on a grass berm under a bright blue sky last February. A black handgun that he used to strafe a marked police car lay in the blades beside him. One of the officers who shot back calmly radioed for a perimeter set-up around the North Sacramento intersection where a short pursuit turned into a highly publicized confrontation, one that underlined the dangers of police work and issues of transparency surrounding it.

On October 31, a jury convicted Lee of attempting to murder that police officer, and hammered him with five additional felony counts spanning attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon and shooting at an inhabited dwelling, which happened six days before that gunfight with the cops.

According to the prosecutors and police, Lee got into a physical altercation with a woman on February 4, 2017. After the fight was over, the district attorney’s office states, Lee pulled a gun and shot up her apartment.

It was that crime that put officers on Lee’s trail. The next week, officers trailed Lee to a house and tried to arrest him. Lee fled and fired multiple rounds at the officers, prosecutors argued at trial. Officers Joshua Dobson, Randall Van Dusen and William Goggin returned fire, striking Lee and taking him into custody.

Under pressure from City Hall, the police department released video footage of the incident, but nothing that depicted the actual confrontation. In one of the videos, an officer at the scene can be heard radioing dispatch, “We have suspect’s gun. Suspect is hit. All officers are OK. All officers are OK.”

Lee, who has a previous felony robbery conviction from 2010, is scheduled back in court December 7, when prosecutors say he faces a maximum sentence of 139 years to life in prison. While his high-profile criminal case is approaching its conclusion, Lee’s involvement in a much different legal battle is still getting started.

Following a short stint in the hospital for injuries sustained in last year’s shootout, Lee was booked into Sacramento County’s main jail, an aging high-rise jutting out of downtown like a yellowed tooth. The 28-year-old was moved to the east wing of the eighth floor, where problem inmates are shut up in cells for more than 23 hours a day. According to a class action lawsuit filed in July, Lee, who fractured his pelvis and suffered neurological injuries from the shooting, has logged “extended periods of time” in solitary confinement despite a history of suicide attempts and diagnosed mental illness.

Lee is one of five plaintiffs standing in for thousands of county jail inmates spanning two lock-ups that prisoner rights groups and experts on mass incarceration have decried as dungeons of psychological torture. Inmates, most of whom have yet to be convicted of their alleged crimes, are often subjected to solitary confinement because the jails don’t have enough staff or resources to adequately house a population increasingly overrun by mental illness, plaintiffs allege.

The county doesn’t necessarily disagree, but blames the deteriorating complexion of the inmate population on statewide sentencing reforms and says it would simply be too expensive to increase jail staffing and medical and mental-health resources. The county retained outside counsel to combat the lawsuit.

Aaron J. Fischer, lead counsel at Disability Rights California, one of two groups behind the class action, said that Lee’s likely transfer out of the jail to a state prison doesn’t disqualify him from the case and won’t affect it “in a substantive way.”

“His story remains a deeply compelling one, illustrative of the serious and systemic problems at the jail,” Fischer continued in an email. “He was courageous to offer his name and story for our lawsuit. It’s not an easy thing to do, and it matters a great deal.”

Fischer said a motion to certify the lawsuit as a class action is set for a November 29 hearing. The county, he said, hadn’t opposed the motion.