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Colbert I. King

How (and Why) Did Jonathan Magbie Die?

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, October 30, 2004; Page A19

With important national and local elections on Tuesday, and with a city in turmoil over baseball stadium financing, why return for a fourth consecutive week to the case of Jonathan Magbie, the 27-year-old quadriplegic who was sentenced by Superior Court Judge Judith Retchin to 10 days in the D.C. jail for simple possession of marijuana? After all, Magbie's dead and buried. Why keep his story alive?

Maybe it's because Jonathan Magbie didn't die the way so many other men of his age and race meet death in the nation's capital: by being gunned down or stabbed in the streets. He didn't lose his life in a house fire or an automobile accident, although it was a car crash at age 4 that left Magbie paralyzed from the neck down, unable to breathe on his own sometimes, and dependent on others for the rest of his life.

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Missing Facts in the Magbie Case (The Washington Post, Oct 23, 2004)
A Son's Death, a Mother's Unanswered Questions (The Washington Post, Oct 16, 2004)
Another Unnecessary Death in D.C. (The Washington Post, Oct 9, 2004)
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On Sept. 20 a judge took Jonathan Magbie away from the people who cared for him and placed him in the hands of the D.C. government. When he died on Sept. 24, Jonathan Magbie was this city's captive under lock and key, unable to fend for himself or live as he wished.

How and why did he die? That question, at least to me, is every bit as important as the outcome in the battleground states on Tuesday. A human being entrusted to our government lost his life. He was arrested, prosecuted and restrained from freedom in our name. Did we the people, through our government, contribute in any way to his death? The performance of this city's criminal justice system is no less important than that of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, on which Mayor Anthony Williams and other city officials lavish such rapt attention.

And so the late Jonathan Magbie still tops my agenda. So does the mystery of his death.

Will we ever know?

Last week Chief Judge Rufus King III of the D.C. Superior Court pledged to "determine what went wrong" in Magbie's case ["Judge King Responds," letters, Oct. 22]. But when asked if the judge would make public his findings after meetings with Corrections Department officials about the jail's capacity to handle different medical conditions, Superior Court spokeswoman Leah Gurowitz said in an e-mail: "The Chief Judge will make any changes in Superior Court practice and procedure that are found necessary to assist the jail in assessing and treating those committed to its custody." Apparently it's going to take more than a prying journalist to find out what the court did or failed to do with regard to Jonathan Magbie.

But answers are needed.

Why did Judge Retchin not take action when Malek Malekghasemi, associate medical director of the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), where Magbie was housed, called Judge Retchin's law clerk on the day after his sentencing to say that Magbie should not be in jail, given the nature of the sentence and his overall medical condition? Did the court have a responsibility to act after receiving information from a competent medical authority, especially information that contradicted her earlier understanding of the jail's ability to accommodate Magbie?

Who advised Judge Retchin's law clerk that the jail could accommodate, as a court official described Magbie, "a paralyzed wheelchair-bound defendant"? The Corrections Department sent me this statement on Thursday: "For the record, the Department of Corrections (DOC) had no conversation with anyone from the Superior Court regarding the housing of a person confined to a wheelchair prior to the sentencing of Mr. Magbie. The DOC was not aware of Mr. Magbie, or his condition, prior to his arrival at the Central Detention Facility [D.C. jail], following his sentencing in Superior Court, on September 20, 2004. However, the judges of the U.S. District Court and the Superior Court, and their staffs, routinely communicate with the DOC through the DOC's General Counsel's Office."

So who gave Judge Retchin assurances, which she stated in open court, that the jail could accommodate Magbie's needs? Was Judge Retchin ever advised that Magbie needed a ventilator at night to breathe? The Corrections Department maintains that it does not provide ventilator services in any of its facilities, and would have said so if asked. A review of all court transcripts related to Magbie will, of course, settle that question. But will that happen?

Did the Corrections Department provide the appropriate level of care needed for Magbie while he was at the CTF? The department maintains that it did. But department staff members learned from Magbie -- after he began experiencing breathing problems on his first night in incarceration and before he was transported by ambulance to Greater Southeast Community Hospital -- that he used a ventilator at night to assist his breathing when he slept. Yet for three nights at the CTF, he was never supplied with one or sent to a facility where a ventilator was available. The Corrections Department says it followed oral and written instructions from Greater Southeast's medical staff for Magbie's care, namely, to provide him with nasal oxygen as needed. Did the hospital provide appropriate instructions, given Magbie's medical condition? Did the Corrections Department take into account the concerns of its associate medical director?

Who will answer these questions?

The D.C. Health Department's investigation into Magbie's death, started Sept. 28, was completed on Oct. 22, according to Philippa Mezile of the department's communications staff. A report is expected next week. Mezile said that after a review by physician Robert Vowels, senior deputy director for D.C. environmental health administration, and the department's general counsel, the report will be made public, subject to further review by the city's attorney general (formerly the corporation counsel). The investigation included interviews with hospital and jail staff members and a review of hospital and jail records, Mezile said.

Did investigators also interview other inmates housed in the CTF infirmary with Magbie, I asked? No, Mezile said, because the Health Department lacks regulatory authority over the Corrections Department except for environmental and sanitation issues. Suppose, she was asked, that there are inmates with stories to tell about Magbie's treatment, as Magbie's family has heard; shouldn't authorities want to know? The question remains unanswered.

Five weeks later, we do not know how and why Magbie died.

On Tuesday, I asked Beverly Fields, chief of staff to the city's chief medical examiner, about Magbie's cause of death. "It's pending," Fields said. "Pending what?" I asked. "Just pending," she said.

kingc@washpost.com


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