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Death on the ITU: video reveals fatal restraint by prison guards

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Joshua Messier had a good life growing up in Charlton, an all-American kid who played sports, hung out with friends.

"My favorite memory is I used to come home from work and be walking down the street and Josh would run down the street with his arms out to come give me a big hug," his father, Kevin Messier said.

>>Expert in mental illness talks about what families can do to keep loved ones safe

It was a good life that was turned upside down by the onset of schizophrenia, then ended at the age of 23 at the hands of correction officers at Bridgewater State Hospital.

"He had his whole life ahead of him. It shouldn't have happened to him," his father told FOX Undercover.

Trouble began just weeks into the second semester of his freshman year at UMass Dartmouth, where he was going to study engineering. His mother noticed the change.

"She had talked to him on the phone and she just said he wasn't making any sense," his father said.

A diagnosis of schizophrenia was soon made, and for the next four years his family struggled to manage his illness. He was at a psychiatric hospital in 2009 when he punched a nurse, landing him at Bridgewater State Hospital for an evaluation.

The hospital is run by the state prison system, and is home to the most violent mentally ill people in Massachusetts. Joshua's family was petrified.

"The lawyer we had hired just told us horror stories about the place," Messier said. "She said it was just a bad place, that people die there all the time, there are criminals and murders and these helpless kids."

Messier lasted in Bridgewater for a month and four days.

Hospital surveillance cameras capture his final hour alive as he first leaves a visiting room after seeing his mother, then walks down a darkened hallway and then slips into a break room, just out of the camera's view.

The break room is off-limits to patients like him, but when an officer questions him, Joshua responds with a punch, records show. Other officers rush in and deliver what one of Joshua's attorneys, Ben Novotny, calls a beating.

"There's nothing really that wasn't uninjured, to his neck, his torso, the extremities. Both eyes were swollen and he even suffered brain bleeds from the beating that he took," Novotny said.

Subdued and restrained, Joshua is led away. Witnesses later tell State Police investigators that as Joshua was being led away he was not only saying he "was sorry" but also that he was "gasping" and "having trouble breathing."

He was being taken to room 13 of the Intensive Treatment Unit, or ITU, where the plan was to restrain Joshua face-up to a bed with a four-point restraint – one on each arm and leg.

Almost immediately after Joshua's legs are in position, the video shows a guard pushing on Joshua's his upper body, sending his torso toward his knees and closing his body like two sides of a suitcase.

As the seconds tick by, the guard continues leaning into Joshua, even using the wall for leverage.

"That pushing, what's that doing to him?" asked FOX Undercover reporter Mike Beaudet.

"That's causing his body to go forward and with that your body's not able to breathe," Novotny said. "So essentially what you're doing is you're suffocating him."

"Do you believe they're killing him right here?" Beaudet asked as video of the restraint rolled.

"Absolutely," Novotny replied. "After two minutes of having that suitcase effect on him where he can't breathe, his body is flopped back and he's lifeless. He never regains a pulse, he never regains blood pressure. They killed him."

As Joshua lies motionless, the officers continue with their work for minutes, oblivious to his condition.

"He's not breathing. You don't see his chest rise. You see in his face in the video turning colors, going from regular skin colors down to red and now to blue," Novotny said.

After Joshua has been still for more than nine minutes, a nurse checks for a pulse and, finding none, runs for help. CPR is started, but it's too late. He is taken to Brockton Hospital, where he's pronounced dead.

His death certificate says cause of death, is "cardiopulmonary arrest during physical restraint". The manner of death is ruled a homicide.

"Was this young man murdered?" Beaudet asked Andrew Meyer, another of Joshua's attorneys.

"They bent him over to the point where he couldn't breathe, and he ended up dead. If that isn't murder I don't know what is," Meyer replied.

Attorneys Meyer and Novotny are suing the state Department of Correction for Joshua's death. They say the officers lashed out because Joshua punched one of them.

"We're taking a compliant young man who expressed his remorse from his outburst, which they don't seem to accept, and they seem to be taking out a bit of revenge on him and that revenge is not minor. That revenge ends up in his death," Meyer said.

The officers involved had their own explanation, one saying that Joshua was struggling and spitting during the restraint and that the officer "wanted to keep patient Messier in a seated position so he would not fall back and hurt himself while still handcuffed," according to a State Police memo of the interview.

The same officer said he "had not received formal training" on the use of potentially dangerous four-point restraints but that had "learned the technique from other veteran officers."

The Department of Correction declined to comment, citing the pending litigation, though a department spokeswoman said in 2009 that there was no indication of excessive force in Joshua's death.

The president of the Massachusetts Correction Officers Federated Union calls the incident unfortunate but says Messier was resisting violently, and that the officers involved have been cleared of any wrongdoing. As for the family's lawsuit, the union president says "They have to accept that their son was a violent and out of control individual."

It's not the first time untrained officers have been implicated in a death involving restraints at Bridgewater State Hospital.

"It doesn't sound like much has happened since my case," said attorney Fran Robinson, who sued the Department of Correction over a 1997 death of patient Philmore Gibson, who died while being restrained.

Before the case settled out of court, guards testified in depositions that they had no formal training on the use of four-point restraints.

"If the correction officers had gotten the proper training do you think your client might still be alive?" Beaudet asked her.

"At the time, I thought that was a very real possibility, yes," Robinson replied.

"Are you surprised to hear about another case?" Beaudet asked.

"I'm saddened and surprised," Robinson said.

Three years after Joshua Messier's death, his father says they have learned that the officers involved weren't criminally charged, let alone disciplined.

The Plymouth County District Attorney's office decided earlier this year not to press charges, a decision his father's attorneys have asked the DA to reconsider. A spokeswoman for the DA's office said that their investigation found "insufficient evidence to charge someone criminally" and noted that the Medical Examiner also viewed the video evidence.

"You want justice here?" Beaudet asked him.

"I want answers and I want justice," Messier replied. "In this country you shouldn't be able to do this kind of thing and say, ‘Oh well,' and then leave."

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