ANACONDA — A coroner's jury found Thursday that Anaconda-Deer Lodge jail inmate Zachary Thomas Williams died by suicide earlier this year.
The jurors also ruled out negligence in Williams's death. It took the jurors a few minutes of deliberation to reach their verdict.
Williams, who was 24 at the time of his death on Jan. 8, was facing trial on six counts of felony child abuse that could have meant up to 90 years in prison. Williams was accused of causing serious harm to his girlfriend's 1-year-old son last fall. The baby lived but suffered a detached retina, and his brain rotated inside his skull, according to County Attorney Ben Krakowka.
The child is blind and will likely require significant care for the rest of his life. He is severely developmentally delayed and has cerebral palsy, Krakowka told The Montana Standard.
Detention officers found Williams inside his cell at about 10 p.m. on Jan. 8 kneeling with a bed sheet wound into a rope and tied around his neck. Williams tied the other end of the sheet to the cell's 3-foot-high handicap railing.
The state medical examiner Dr. Sunil Prashar found Williams's death to be a suicide by asphyxiation due to hanging.
No alcohol or drugs were found in Williams's system during the autopsy, Prashar said during his testimony at the inquest.
According to court testimony, three detention officers cut Williams down and worked to resuscitate him until medical professionals arrived on the scene. The medical professionals then took over, attempting to revive Williams using a defibrillator machine.
Several witnesses, including a state investigator and detention center officers, testified that Williams had threatened suicide several times while in jail. As a result, he was evaluated by a crisis response team. A mental health professional found that Williams was playing a game.
"It was not a cry for help," said Anaconda Assistant Police Chief Bill Sather.
Sather testified that Williams frequently claimed he was going on a hunger strike, but at the time of his death, he weighed three pounds less than he had when he first entered jail 77 days before.
The day of his death, Williams put a sheet up over his cell door window. As a result, detention officers took Williams's bedding away from him.
But Williams had ripped a strip from the bed sheet and hidden it, possibly between two mattresses he had placed onto his bottom bunk bed.
After officers removed Williams's bedding, he put sheets of paper over his cell door window. He moistened the paper to make it stick to the door.
State investigator Jeremy Ewan testified that he found a Christmas card and a personal notebook in Williams's cell. A letter Williams had written to his mother was also examined as evidence.
Ewan stated that nothing Williams left behind mentioned suicide but that he complained in his writing about the criminal justice system. He also wrote about his depression issues in his personal notebook.
Krakowka said no charges had been filed in this case. But it is standard procedure to hold an inquest when an inmate dies in custody.
Butte-Silver Bow Coroner Lee LaBreche presided over the inquest. Anaconda-Deer Lodge County Coroner Jessie Billquist-Jette recused herself from conducting the inquest due to the potential for conflict of interest since Williams's suicide happened at the county jail. Billquist-Jette called it standard practice in inquests that involve law enforcement.