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Supreme Court sends case involving man who died in St. Louis jail back to appeals court

The U.S. Supreme Court building is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, June 17. The Supreme Court on Monday sent a case involving a man who died in police custody back to the court of appeals for reconsideration. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI
The U.S. Supreme Court building is seen on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, June 17. The Supreme Court on Monday sent a case involving a man who died in police custody back to the court of appeals for reconsideration. Photo by Ken Cedeno/UPI | License Photo

June 28 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court Monday overturned a lower court ruling in the death of a man who died in police custody at a St. Louis jail after officers handcuffed him and put their weight on his back inside his jail cell.

The parents of Nicholas Gilbert argued their son's 2015 death was similar to the death of George Floyd last year at the hands of police except for race. Gilbert was White and Floyd was Black. They filed suit with the Supreme Court last year at the height of social justice protests.

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While not ruling on guilt or innocence of St. Louis police officers involved, justices in an unsigned decision kicked the case back to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals for further review.

"We express no view as to whether the officers used unconstitutionally excessive force or, if they did, whether Gilbert's right to be free of such force in these circumstances was clearly established at the time of his death," the majority of the justices said.

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"We instead grant the petition for certiorari, vacate the judgment of the Eighth Circuit, and remand the case to give the court the opportunity to employ an inquiry that clearly attends to the facts and circumstances in answering those questions in the first instance," the court said.

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Three justices -- Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas -- issued a stinging dissent, accusing their colleagues of taking the easy way out instead of accepting the case.

"The court, unfortunately, is unwilling to face up to the choice between denying the petition (and bearing the criticism that would inevitably elicit) and granting plenary review (and doing the work that would entail)," the dissenting justices said.

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"Instead, it claims to be uncertain whether the Court of Appeals actually applied the correct legal standard, and for that reason, it vacates the judgment below and remands the case. This course of action may be convenient for this court but it is unfair to the Court of Appeals," they said.

Gilbert's family and social justice organizations had hoped for the Supreme Court to set some standard in such cases in what amount of force could be used with a restrained prisoner. Authorities involved in the case said the force was needed because of Gilbert's behavior and intervened when he tried to tie his clothes around his neck.

The medical examiner in the case said Gilbert, who was homeless at the time, died of heart disease, helped along by the use of methamphetamine and the forcible restraint. He was initially arrested for suspicion of trespassing, an outstanding parking ticket and failure to appear in court.

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