California

College student found dead in holding cell from an alleged suicide

June 2, 1981
Signal Hill, California
Ron Settles (21) is found beaten and hanging by a makeshift noose in a cell after being arrested

Settles had been pulled over for speeding when he allegedly attacked officers with a knife. The arresting officers testified they then used force to subdue Settles. Settles was put in a holding cell where he was later found hanging, a mattress cover used to fashion a crude noose.

At trial, two former prisoners testified they did not see a mattress cover in Settles’ cell the day of his death. A reconstruction of the hanging at trial showed the noose did not have a knot at the neck, though Settles had a bruise matching a knot in that location. A coroner’s inquest found Settles “died at the hands of another, other than by accident.” And one of the arresting officers, Jerry Lee Brown, had a history of violence towards inmates, including a suspect who “became violent and was subdued” who was injured so severely he lingered in a coma for three years before dying of brain damage.

Despite these pieces of evidence suggesting Settles was murdered, 5 of the 9-person jury ruled Settles’ death as a suicide. The four officers involved were acquitted. Settles’ parents won a $62 million wrongful death suit against the city of Signal Hill and its police department in 1983.

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