Closing arguments are set to begin Thursday morning in a trial to determine damages for the woman whose rights were violated when she was shackled before and after childbirth.
Emotions drew Juana Villegas to tears at times on the witness stand Wednesday, as she recalled being restrained during labor and immediately after giving birth to her son three years ago.
The testimony came during questioning on the second day of a trial in federal court to determine how much money, if any in damages a jury of four women and three men might award her.
This week’s trial follows the previous ruling of U.S. District Judge William J. Haynes Jr. in April, in which he found that Davidson County Sheriff’s Office deputies violated Villegas’ civil rights by keeping her shackled for much of the time leading up to and then after her childbirth, and also for refusing to allow her the use of a breast pump upon her release from the hospital.
On July 3, 2008, a Berry Hill police officer arrested Villegas, then an undocumented Mexican immigrant who was nine months pregnant at the time, after she failed to produce a driver’s license during a traffic stop. She was later held in jail over the July 4 weekend on a 287(g) immigration hold, only to go into labor late in the evening on July 5.
Villegas first came to tears Wednesday when asked on the witness stand to describe her experience while shackled to a gurney in the back of ambulance headed to Nashville General Hospital two days after her arrest. She said she feared for the safety of her child while in the back of the ambulance and worried that with her legs shackled she wouldn’t be able to give birth if her child came during the ride.
As for any pain or discomfort caused by the leg shackles, “I wasn’t worried about that,” Villegas answered through a court interpreter. “The thing I was worried about was my child.”
Sheriff’s deputies released the shackles during the delivery but later replaced them. Villegas testified that when she was shackled following the delivery, her movement with her child was very restricted. She said she tried not to move much because the clink of the leg chains would disturb her sleeping son.
Villegas later testified that upon her return to jail, sheriff’s office employees informed a nurse that Villegas would not be allowed to take a breast pump with her back to jail, something she said led to her breasts “hurting very bad.”
Of the entire experience, Villegas said, “I always have it in my mind.” She added she would use money a jury might award to seek treatment for the memories she still has. A psychiatrist has diagnosed Villegas with post-traumatic stress disorder and major depressive disorder. In court Tuesday, the psychiatrist — Dr. Jill DeBona — testified that she believes Villegas will require long-term psychiatric treatment.
While some of the questioning Wednesday drew tears from Villegas, parts of Metro’s cross-examination solicited a different response from Haynes. The judge had already ruled on the sheriff’s office's liability in the case, and instructed both sides that issues pertaining to that or to Villegas’ immigration status were not to be brought up before the jury. Villegas' immigration status has been in a sort of official hold while the case has proceeded.
Metro attorney Kevin Klein asked Villegas whether she failed to report to doctors back and leg pain as well as mental anguish she claims resulted from her shackling.
But it seemed to be Klein’s questioning about false information Villegas might have provided on job applications and multiple questions about her knowledge of or fear that she would be separated from her family that frustrated Haynes, who said he was “mystified” and “astounded” by the attorney's repeated brushes with information the judge had already said was not to be discussed.
After the jury was released for the day, Haynes addressed Klein, saying, “you left a clear impression with the jury that there is something else” involved that they won’t get to hear. Then Haynes walked out of the courtroom.
Closing arguments begin Thursday at 9 a.m.