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Detention officer charged in inmate's death for first time at Harris County Jail, DA's office says

Jaquaree Simmons died at the Harris County Jail during the 2021 freeze. Eleven officers were fired and six others were suspended in the wake of the investigation.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas — A former Harris County Jail detention officer was charged with felony manslaughter in connection with the death of an inmate about two years ago.

Jaquaree Simmons, 23, died while he was in custody at the Harris County Jail in February 2021. Shortly after Simmons' death, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez announced that 11 Harris County detention officers were fired and six others were suspended in the wake of the investigation.

"I understand in no way these disciplinary actions make up for what happened to Jaquaree Simmons inside our jail, but I owe it to him, his mother and to our community to do everything in my power to ensure those who had a hand in it are held accountable and that this sort of thing never happens again," Gonzalez said after firing and suspending the officers in late May 2021.

Eric Niles Morales, 28, is the first and only detention officer who has been criminally charged in connection with an in-custody death at the jail, according to the Harris County District Attorney's Office. He was indicted and charged last Thursday, officials said.

Morales was not present during his probable cause hearing early Tuesday, but his bail was set at $100,000. He was on bond as of Wednesday.

"Our investigators were thorough. They conducted 73 interviews with 37 employees and 20 people were detained in our jail," Gonzalez said. "Some of which required follow-up interviews."

Simmons' death

Simmons was found dead in his cell on Feb. 17, 2021, during the winter storm. According to the HCDAO, a medical examiner determined that he died from blunt-force trauma to his head. At the time of his death, Morales said he was fighting Simmons in self-defense.

Simmons was booked into jail about a week before his death, on Feb. 10, 2021. He was charged with felon in possession of a weapon, according to county officials.

Six days later, investigators said Simmons used his clothes to clog his toilet, causing it to overflow and flood his cell. When detention officers responded to his cell to clean up the mess, a fight broke out between the officers and Simmons, authorities said.

After the fight, Simmons was left in his cell without clothes, which is a violation of jail policy, according to Harris County Sheriff's Office officials. When officers returned to his cell later that night, they said Simmons threw his meal tray at an officer and charged him. The officer punched Simmons in the face and called for help, authorities said.

When officers showed up to take Simmons to a medical evaluation, they used force "in handcuffing and removing Simmons from the cell," HCDAO officials said. During this struggle, Simmons was hit in the head several times, HCSO officials said. He got the medical evaluation and was taken back to his cell.

According to the district attorney's office, Simmons was left unmonitored due to a power outage related to the winter storm and the "failure of detention officers to conduct visual checks as required."

Simmons was found unresponsive on the floor of his cell the next day. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

According to court documents, Morales was 6 feet, 5 inches tall and weighed 260 pounds while Simmons was 5 feet, 4 inches tall and about 120 pounds. Charging documents claim that Morales kneed Simmons in the head, hit his head against a door and dropped him on his head. Those actions caused Simmons' death, the documents said.

HCDAO officials said inmates should be treated fairly and humanely.

“Regardless of why they are in the jail, inmates should be safe from unlawful attacks by the very people who are sworn to protect them and keep them secure,” Assistant District Attorney Kimberly Clark said. “Harris County will prosecute those who break the law inside the jail, regardless of which side of the bars they are on.”

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