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A paralyzed man was left on a jail floor for days. St Louis officials are trading blame

The St. Louis City Justice Center on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, in St. Louis, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Lamarr Pearson, 35, was left on the floor of his jail cell at the St. Louis City Justice Center in downtown St. Louis for days. Officials in the city are trading blame for who is responsible for the paralyzed man's condition.

A photo of a paralyzed detainee in the St. Louis City Justice Center has triggered calls for accountability and improvement in the city’s main jail. Lamarr Pearson, 35, allowed his attorney to take the photo on April 1, three days after his arrest on assault charges.

First published by the Riverfront Times, the graphic photo shows Pearson lying on his stomach near a wheelchair, his arms folded beneath his head. The back of his pants are stained with feces.

“I took the photo because I knew nobody would pay attention to yet another bad story coming out of the jail,” Pearson’s attorney, Susan McGraugh, told St. Louis on the Air. “I knew that if I had a picture of it, and people saw what it looked like, that it would affect them on a more emotional level. I also had my doubts as to whether anybody would admit that that had happened unless I had a photograph of it.”

The photo has had an effect but not the one she hoped. Sheriff’s deputies barred her from seeing clients. She came back with a judge’s order that allowed her access but said she’s still facing retaliation.

In the days after publicizing the photo, the St. Louis Sheriff’s Office and the Division of Corrections traded blame over which city agency was responsible for Pearson’s condition.

Lamarr Pearson, 35, on Friday, April 1, 2024, at the St. Louis City Justice Center in downtown St. Louis.
Susan McGraugh
Attorney Susan McMgraugh broke the jail's rules to take a photo of her client. "I had my doubts as to whether anybody would admit that that had happened unless I had a photograph of it," she said.

The only policy changes at the jail came in the form of signs that greeted attorneys last week: St. Louis Sheriff Vernon Betts posted an order instructing attorneys to “securely store their cellphones, electronic devices and other contraband items” before entering the jail.

That’s not a small inconvenience. McGraugh, who's director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at St. Louis University, said attorneys regularly rely on phones to contact their client’s families and to share legal documents while working in the jail.

She warned that a ban will make their work much harder.

“The one thing I haven't heard from anyone during this whole time is what changes are going to take place to make sure that another person isn't left in this situation,” McGraugh said. “And no one has given that answer. They're obfuscating the obvious issue by making it about me taking a picture with my phone.”

Reached for comment, Betts said that he does not run the Justice Center and that the responsibility for Pearson’s condition fell to “the Department of Corrections, which reports to the Director of Public Safety and the Mayor.”

The statement continued: “However, I am appalled by the unsafe and unsanitary conditions that Mr. Pearson has endured while being detained in the City Justice Center. The City Administration must be held accountable for their failure to protect the basic rights of Mr. Pearson and many other detainees.”

Asked about the April 5 notice that barred attorneys from bringing their phones to talk to clients in the jail, Betts said the policy wasn’t new but rather “identical to, and consistent with, the policy that was recently mandated within the City Justice Center.”

McGraugh contends that Betts’ response isn’t accurate and that a separate phone policy governing the Justice Center — implemented in January following a different attorney releasing a photo of a detainee’s medical neglect — allowed attorneys to get permission to bring their phones into the jail.

She also rejects Betts’ claim that his office wasn’t responsible for Pearson when he was left in excrement on the floor. Despite a judge’s order and media attention, she said that Pearson has still not been given toilet access, a shower or his needed medication.

Instead, he remains in roughly the same condition as he was in the April 1 photo. She visited him Monday morning.

“He is not getting assistance using the toilet. He has gotten to the point where what he has to do is just go ahead and relieve himself and then ask for different clothing,” she said.

McGraugh said the situation should serve as a wakeup call for officials who have spent years promising to address the jail’s security, staffing and detainee conditions.

She’s worried that things will get worse.

“I don't care whose fault it is,” she said. “It can be everybody's fault. But someone has to step up. I mean, these are public officials. They are accountable to the citizens in St. Louis. And they owe everybody an explanation as to why my client was left there.”

To hear more about the ongoing fallout of McGraugh’s photo, and how St. Louis’ Division of Corrections is blocking attorneys from passing paper documents to clients in jail, listen to St. Louis on the Air on Apple Podcast or Spotify or by clicking the play button below.

Susan McGraugh on 'St. Louis on the Air'

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Roshae Hemmings is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."