The family of a man killed in Pima County jail while awaiting sentencing has filed an $11 million claim against the county, saying the jail staff acted negligently in housing their son with an accused murderer.
Branden Roth, 24, was found dead in his cell early in the morning of April 19. His autopsy showed he died of asphyxiation after he was severely beaten, according to Arizona Daily Star archives.
Roth had recently pleaded guilty to one count of trafficking in stolen property, a nonviolent crime, but was sharing a cell with King Yates, who was awaiting trial in the shooting death of his wife.
When corrections officers searched the cell, they found a sock full of batteries in Yates' belongings, which the claim said he used as a weapon against Roth.
The Oct. 12 claim was filed on behalf of Roth's mother, Carrie Roth-Walker, and father, John Lewandowski. Also named as a claimant is Roth's 7-month old son, who was born 10 days before Roth pleaded guilty to a nonviolent offense and was taken to the Pima County jail to await sentencing, court records show.
The claim also names Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier, who oversees the jail, and Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall.
After Roth was taken into custody April 7, Yates was re-assigned to his cell, which the claim said was a result of Pima County employees making an error on Yates' risk score, assigning him a lower score than he should have been assigned, according to the claim.
The lower risk score was given after staff failed to "allocate the full number of risk points that should have been allocated as a result of Mr. Yates being involved in multiple fights while in jail, the claim said.
Jail staff was aware Yates was housed in the lower security unit only because of an alleged lack of room in the higher security pods for inmates with higher risk scores, but the sergeant on duty the day of Roth's death let a corrections officer go home sick before a replacement had arrived, according to the claim.
"At the time that Branden Roth was assaulted and killed by King Yates, the unit in which he was being housed was being monitored by a corrections officer who had the responsibility for monitoring two pods, instead of the normally staffed one pod," the claim said.
In addition to facing charges in his wife's death, Yates had several other arrests and convictions "involving the threat or use of violence," including a previous domestic violence charge related to his wife, the claim said.
"The fact that Branden was going to be a father would have been a life-changing event for Branden. He was very excited about becoming a father," the claim said.
The claim is asking that Roth's son be awarded $5 million and that Roth-Walker and Lewandowski each be awarded $3 million.
"I've been desperately trying since day one to get people to see Branden as a victim and not a criminal," Roth-Walker told the Star on Tuesday. "The best example of the type of person that Branden was is, one more than one occasion if he saw any kind of animal killed on the side of the road, he'd bury it. He was, in every sense of the word, very compassionate."
Branden Roth's son is living with his mother but sees Roth-Walker and her husband every weekend.
"I have to do everything I can to make sure that Branden's son is taken care of," Roth-Walker said.
In May, Lewandowski, who the claim said reconnected with Branden when he was 15 years old, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Pima County, corrections chief Byron Gwaltney and Yates.
The lawsuit was filed 11 days after Lewandowski filed a $5 million claim with the county, but the lawsuit was dropped by Lewandowski in June.
While the county is allowed 60 days to respond to a claim before the plaintiff can file a lawsuit, Lewandowski's attorney said the lawsuit was dismissed after new information came to light and his attorneys decided they should investigate further before deciding "who should be suing whom."
"Branden Roth's family is devastated by his loss, and they intend to seek justice on his behalf," Ewing said, adding that they're waiting to see how the county responds to the most recent claim but anticipate filing a wrongful death lawsuit in the near future.
The Pima County Attorney's Office has previously said it is not able to comment on pending litigation.
The office has until Dec. 5 to decide if it intends to pursue the death penalty in the first-degree murder case against Yates in Roth's death and has already filed two extensions to allow them more time to consider, according to court records.
Yates has a status conference scheduled for Dec. 11 with Judge Howard Fell.