WORCESTER – A federal judge has ordered a paraplegic convicted murderer released from state prison, opining that the state Department of Correction is “neither able nor willing” to provide for his dire medical needs.
“Massachusetts does not recognize capital punishment, yet the (DOC) is, through its lack of treatment of his quadriplegia and its complications, slowly killing him,” U.S. District Court Judge Timothy S. Hillman wrote of inmate Timothy M. Reaves.
Mr. Reaves was paralyzed at age 29 in a 1994 crash while fleeing police after the fatal shooting of a 14-year-old boy in New Bedford. He was convicted of first-degree murder in 1996, at which time the cost to taxpayers of confining him already approached $1 million.
Mr. Reaves has now been in custody an additional 24 years. It is unclear how much the state has spent to confine him, as the DOC, in response to queries, has said it does not track spending on individual inmates.
What is clear, Judge Hillman ruled, is that the state has violated Mr. Reaves’ constitutional rights by failing to provide him adequate medical care.
In a 19-page opinion dated July 31, the judge wrote that DOC has shown a “woeful disregard” for Mr. Reaves’ well-being by “repeatedly refusing” to implement the recommendations of court-ordered specialists.
“As a result, Mr. Reaves’ condition has needlessly and significantly declined to the point that he may soon die,” Judge Hillman wrote.
Mr. Reaves filed a lawsuit alleging unconstitutional treatment in 2016 through Prisoners’ Legal Services.
In 2018, a U.S. District Court jury in Worcester ruled that DOC did not violate his rights. However, Judge Hillman in May of this year presided over a bench trial regarding grievances not considered in the jury trial.
Judge Hillman, who had in 2016 mandated several changes in Mr. Reaves’ care and appointed a monitor to oversee the process, wrote that DOC consistently ignored the recommendations of the monitor.
According to the judge, Mr. Reaves is in danger of developing autonomic dysreflexia, a complication of his paralysis that could lead to death.
DOC medical providers “do not respond appropriately” to its symptoms, Judge Hillman wrote, “nor do they evidence an appreciation of its seriousness.”
The judge wrote that Mr. Reaves’ fingernails have not been cut since last year. In addition to being so long that they curl into the palms of his hands, the overgrown nails increase Mr. Reaves’ likelihood of developing autonomic dysreflexia, the judge wrote.
Judge Hillman noted that Dr. Maria Angeles, medical director at MCI-Shirley, testified that she “never noticed his fingernails were long.”
According to the ruling, Dr. Angeles also testified that Mr. Reaves “refuses to let certain staff members cut his nails.”
Mr. Reaves, according to the ruling, is a “difficult” patient. In addition to paralysis, he sustained a traumatic brain injury and has been diagnosed with a personality disorder and episodes of atypical depression.
Mr. Reaves – who cursed during 2018 testimony he gave from a gurney wheeled into federal court – is also facing charges that he spat on a nurse who tried to feed him lunch, Judge Hillman noted.
Judge Hillman said the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution does not require the state to give inmates the “best possible treatment money can buy,” but does require medical services that are “reasonably commensurate with modern medical science and of a quality acceptable within prudent professional standards.”
Mr. Reaves, who is the state’s only quadriplegic inmate, is severely malnourished, has fungal infections in his fingers and toes and has a pressure ulcer on his sacrum, Judge Hillman noted.
“Further, when (a doctor) examined Mr. Reaves, his bedding was soiled and there was bloody drainage from his sacral wound,” he wrote.
The judge wrote that Mr. Reaves is “suffering from the consequences of deficient medical care,” saying his emaciated frame, coiled nails, caked beard and raw wounds “make this finding inescapable.”
Judge Hillman ordered Mr. Reaves to be “immediately transferred to a non-DOC facility that treats spinal cord injuries and has a spinal cord injury specialist on staff with the appropriate training to care for his medical needs.”
The state on Aug. 5 filed a motion seeking to stay implementation of the judge’s order, arguing that it exceeded the scope of his authority and could not be immediately carried out anyhow.
According to DOC lawyer Edward J. O’Donnell, only a three-judge panel can order the release of Mr. Reaves from DOC custody.
Mr. O’Donnell also wrote that “ongoing attempts” to find a medical facility willing to accept Mr. Reaves for long-term care have been unsuccessful.
Separate from his lawsuit, Mr. Reaves filed a petition for release under recently passed medical parole legislation.
The state has not ruled on the petition, Mr. Reaves’ lawyer, Lauren Petit, confirmed.
“We welcome the court’s ruling and anticipate that it will ensure that Mr. Reaves will finally receive medical care that meets the minimum standards set by the Constitution,” Ms. Petit wrote in an email.
According to Mr. Donnelly’s motion, Mr. Reaves on Aug. 3 was “temporarily transferred” from MCI-Shirley to an unnamed hospital for “assessment and treatment.”
DOC declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
Mr. Reaves’ attorneys have until November to file a petition to obtain attorney’s fees from the state.