'These Are Human Beings'
Mari Newman got into civil rights law to fight for those who need her most—like Diana Sanchez
Published in 2020 Colorado Super Lawyers Magazine on March 16, 2020
It’s the kind of case Mari Newman became a lawyer for.
On July 14, 2018, Diana Sanchez, eight months pregnant, was booked into Denver County Jail on a probation revocation. The next day, a medical exam confirmed that Sanchez had a condition that had a 30% chance of causing preterm labor; it also noted she was 1 to 2 cm dilated, although not experiencing contractions. But on July 31, the contractions began. Sanchez told multiple Denver County deputies that she was in active labor.
“Yet no one did a thing,” says Newman, who now represents Sanchez. “It was absolutely egregious. I’ve never seen such stunning disregard for a human being in need of serious medical help.”
Seen is the key word.
“Unfortunately, this kind of treatment—substandard care, although in this case, it was extreme—happens all the time in prisons,” Newman says. “But Diana was in a video-monitored cell.”
Which means there is an almost six-hour video that shows Sanchez laboring alone in significant pain without basic medical supplies, begging for help.
“It’s just a stunning thing to watch,” Newman says. “It’s devastating, it’s heartbreaking, and it made me absolutely furious.”
After Sanchez tells the staff monitoring her cell that her water broke, one thin pad is slipped underneath her door. “That’s like suggesting that putting a Band-Aid on would prevent birth,” Newman says.
Sanchez finally lies down on a steel bench, pulls down her underwear, and gives birth to her son.
“This nurse finally comes in, and it’s like he’s never seen a baby before,” Newman says. “He couldn’t even clamp the umbilical cord because they didn’t have even the most basic medical tools.”
Newman adds that the baby, which weighed about 5 pounds, didn’t receive basic treatment, such as mucus clearing and warming. “These are human beings,” she says. “But it didn’t seem to matter.”
The Denver Sheriff’s Department conducted an internal investigation that concluded the jail deputies did nothing wrong, but that policies would be changed in the future to ensure a woman in labor would immediately be taken to the hospital. Newman says they met with the parties involved to ensure nothing of this nature would happen again, but their message “was falling on deaf ears.” That’s when Sanchez filed suit and released the video.
“This was not a decision she made easily,” Newman says. “That video is intimate and disturbing, and even though it’s a year later, it’s not something you just get over. But Diana never wanted this to happen to anyone ever again.”
All the defendants have since filed a motion to dismiss the case, which, as of press time, is pending.
“Which is ridiculous on multiple levels, because this thing will keep going, and I can’t imagine they want this video to play to a jury,” Newman says. “Since its release, people have reached out from all over the world to says how horrified they were by it.”
For Newman, when she considered the law, it was civil rights or nothing.
“There was no doubt that I would fight for the disenfranchised, the underdog, the people who need me most,” she says. “I believe a community should be judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable.”
Like Sanchez. Or like Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old black man from Aurora who died after being assaulted by Denver police in 2019, Newman says.
“I wish I could say this romanticized notion of Colorado is true, but it doesn’t matter how beautiful it is here, and how much people love to live here; systemic racism exists, like it does everywhere in this country,” Newman says.
McClain, says Newman, was walking at night when someone called police about a “sketchy” individual. Body cam footage shows that after police arrived, three officers tackled McClain, who weighed 140 pounds, onto a nearby lawn.
They used multiple types of force against him over the course of about 15 minutes, including two applications of the carotid chokehold, which has been outlawed by multiple law enforcement agencies, Newman says. “Now, by all accounts, McClain was a good guy. He was the type of guy who’d take his violin and play it at animal shelters so the dogs and cats could hear music.” No criminal charges were filed against the police officers. As of press time, Newman was in the process of filing suit.
“It can be really hard, [working] cases like these,” says Newman, whose clients have also included Guantanamo Bay detainees. “But it’s nothing compared to what my clients face.”