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Former St. Louis County Jail worker alleges officer choked her in 'unprovoked and unjustified' attack

A federal lawsuit filed this week by a former medical technician at the Duluth jail claims that the officer had a history of attacking new medical staff "as a form of training exercise."

File: St. Louis County Jail
The general population area or day room for women at the St. Louis County Jail is pictured Nov. 28, 2018. Inmates eat meals, play games, read and watch TV here. Their cells (doors) are arranged around and above the open space. (Bob King / News Tribune)
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A former medical contractor at the St. Louis County Jail alleges that a correctional officer "lunged" at her and began choking her in an unplanned training exercise that left her fearing for her life.

The Sept. 16, 2016, incident is the basis for a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday by Natalina Slaughter against St. Louis County and Correctional Officer James Burhans.

Slaughter, now of Minneapolis, claims in the complaint that she "experienced severe physical pain and discomfort as well as severe emotional distress during the attack."

"Ms. Slaughter was walking through an isolated hallway when defendant Officer Burhans lunged at her, placed one hand around her neck, and started to compress and strangle her," the complaint states. "Officer Burhans attacked plaintiff with no justification whatsoever and without any prior notice or consent."

Slaughter had just started at the Duluth jail after being hired as a medical technician for MEND Correctional Care, a private company that contracts with correctional facilities for inmate medical services.

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"She believed that Defendant Officer Burhans was attempting to kill her through strangulation," the complaint states. "Ms. Slaughter defended herself by pushing a medication car at Officer Burhans and trying to free herself from his grasp."

The complaint states that Burhans eventually released Slaughter and that she reported the incident to the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office.

The lawsuit alleges that Burhans "had a previous history of conducting similar unprovoked attacks on new medical staff at St. Louis County Jail as a form of training exercise," though the document does not provide any supporting evidence for that claim.

The complaint, filed by Minneapolis civil rights attorney Zorislav Leyderman, argues that the county and jail administration "knew that Officer Burhans was perpetrating these attacks on new medical staff, but the county failed to take any action to discipline Officer Burhans or to direct him to terminate his unprovoked and unjustified attacks."

Leyderman said Slaughter suffered injuries to her face, neck and legs, along with "severe emotional/physiological trauma and distress" that caused her to develop PTSD, panic attacks and exacerbated existing mental health conditions. She reportedly missed a month of work due to the incident, developed suicidal thoughts and rarely left her house for approximately six months.

"As a direct result of defendants' actions, plaintiff required medical care and has incurred medical expenses" the eight-page complaint states. "In addition, plaintiff had to take time off work and has suffered lost wages."

The suit alleges that Burhans and the county engaged in battery, negligence and negligent retention in violation of Slaughter's Fourth and 14th Amendment rights and Minnesota state law. It seeks unspecified monetary damages.

Sheriff Ross Litman declined to comment on the lawsuit Friday afternoon. He confirmed that Burhans remains employed at the jail.

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The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Susan Richard Nelson and Magistrate Judge Leo Brisbois.

Tom Olsen has covered crime and courts for the Duluth News Tribune since 2013. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth and a lifelong resident of the city. Readers can contact Olsen at 218-723-5333 or tolsen@duluthnews.com.
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