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Leavitt won't testify about `chair' death

An attorney's bid to ask the governor what he was told about the death of an inmate in a restraining chair was quashed Oct. 16 by a federal judge.

Ross C. Anderson said he wanted to subpoena Gov. Mike Leavitt and his deputy chief of staff and press aide Vicki Varela to find out how prison officials arrived at their justification for the use of the chair on inmate Michael D. Valent.Anderson claims prison officials have been offering conflicting versions of what led up to the decision to strap Valent in the device for 16 hours on March 20. A short time later, Valent, 19, died of blood clots that were blamed on the restraints that constricted circulation in his legs and arms.

His mother, Angela M. Armstrong, later filed a lawsuit against prison officials and the manufacturer of the chair, alleging a violation of her son's constitutional rights, negligence and product liability. Filed in May in state court, Armstrong's lawsuit was subsequently transferred to federal court.

The Department of Corrections quit using the chair in April.

At a hearing Thursday before U.S. District Senior Judge Bruce Jenkins, Anderson said he needs to question the governor to unravel the official "spin" that corrections officials put on the story.

Shortly after Valent's death, a prison spokesman told reporters that Valent was placed in the restraining chair to stop him from banging his head, arms and legs against his cell walls. Later, officials said they resorted to the chair when Valent, who had recently been taken off his regular medication, was found with a pillow case over his head.

They assert that Valent swatted the hand of an officer who tried to remove the pillow case and then adopted a "fighting stance," Anderson said.

The governor and Varela may be able to shed some light on how prison officials "came up with this story," Anderson said, suggesting that the public has been deceived by "misrepresentations" fed to the media by prison spokesman Jack Ford.

Also, Leavitt could settle the question of whether the controversy over Valent's death led to the ouster of corrections chief O. Lane McCotter and prison psychiatrist David L. Egli.

"McCotter said he told the governor he had been contemplating retirement for some time and that the incident had nothing to do with it," Anderson said. "We don't buy that."

The attorney said Leavitt and Varela are pivotal witnesses because they discussed the incident with prison officials as the controversy unfolded.

While acknowledging the relevance of the information, Jenkins agreed with state lawyers that Anderson could achieve the same purpose by questioning everyone who discussed the incident with Leavitt and Varela.

Anderson wasn't satisfied, arguing that those individuals - particularly McCotter and Ford - can't be believed.

Question them first, Jenkins replied, and "down the road we can concern ourselves with the verity of their answers." The judge said if Anderson decides he's dissatisfied with the answers coming from the corrections' side, he can make another request to question the governor.

"I can assure you we'll be back," Anderson told reporters following the hearing. "We want to hear from the governor what they told him."

Though he lost the battle to subpoena the state's chief executive, Anderson did win the right to obtain the prison's complete history on using the restraining chair.

Corrections lawyers argued the release of the information would constitute an invasion of privacy because it would require the disclosure of medical and psychiatric information about the inmates. They also said it would take months to compile.

Anderson said he's been told such a list already exists. Whether it does or not, Jenkins told state lawyers to comply with his order.