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A supervisor at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center testified Friday that he ordered a junior corrections officer to “sit on him” in the moments before inmate Vincent Villela lost consciousness and died at the jail in 2019.
Prosecutors allege that Villela, 37, died after MDC officer Jonathan Sandoval – following the command of a supervisor – pressed a knee into the inmate’s back.
Sandoval, 35, and his supervisor, Lt. Keith Brandon, 46, testified in their own defense Friday on the final day of testimony.
Each is charged with involuntary manslaughter, a fourth-degree felony, in Villela’s Feb. 2, 2019, death. A fourth-degree felony is punishable by one to two years in prison.
Closing arguments are expected on Monday in 2nd Judicial District Court. Both officers remain on paid administrative leave from MDC.
“We attempt to take the cuffs off and exit the cell,” Sandoval told jurors. “But (Villela) starts squirming and moving to where we can’t take the restraints off of him, on his feet or his hands.”
The fatal confrontation began after Sandoval and other officers placed Villela in a psychiatric cell on orders of medical personnel.
An autopsy found that Villela had consumed a large quantity of methamphetamine and fentanyl at the time of his arrest for armed robbery and other charges.
“I believe (Villela) was hallucinating,” Sandoval said. He said Villela appeared to panic when officers placed him into the psychiatric cell.
“I don’t know if he was hallucinating there was somebody in the cell,” Sandoval said. When Villela began to struggle, officer placed him face down on a mattress on the floor where he later lost consciousness and died.
Brandon acknowledged in his testimony that he ordered Sandoval to “sit on him.”
“I specifically asked Jonathan – officer Sandoval – to get on the inmate, sit on the inmate, because’s he’s rocking and rolling,” Brandon told jurors.
“We have a problem that, if the inmate rolls, he can then be on his side, grab people and pull them in,” and potentially hurt officers, he said.
Sandoval testified that Villela grabbed another officer by the wrist. As officers struggled to loosen Villela’s grip, he heard Brandon shout the command “get on him.”
“I then switch my knee positioning and I put my knee in his mid-to-lower back” just above the buttocks, Sandoval said.
“It is based in training,” Sandoval said of his decision to place a knee on Villela. “We get trained to do that to stabilize the inmate from rolling over.”
Sandoval said he never placed his knee on Villela’s upper back.
“At no point in time do I have my full weight on him,” Sandoval told jurors. “I just apply pressure as needed and release it as needed.”
Villela’s family last year reached a $4.56 million settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit against Bernalillo County and Centurion Detention Health Care Services, which provided medical services at MDC at the time of Villela’s death.