Justice for a 'Death of Neglect'

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, September 17, 2005

Next Tuesday marks the first anniversary of 27-year-old Jonathan Magbie's final encounter with the D.C. government. It will be no cause for celebration.

It was on Sept. 20, 2004, that D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith Retchin sentenced Magbie, a quadriplegic since an accident at age 4, to 10 days in the D.C. jail. His crime? Possession of marijuana.

Five days after falling into the hands of the D.C. government, Magbie was dead. He died a horrible death. It was preventable. But nobody in the system cared.

Looking down from her bench, Retchin saw a first-time offender. He controlled his wheelchair with a mouth-operated device. He could breathe only with a battery-controlled pulmonary pacemaker. At night he needed the assistance of a respirator. He could have been sentenced to home detention, where he would have had round-the-clock attention. Instead, Retchin, apparently upset when Magbie refused to swear off weed, which helped him get through a miserable existence, sent him to that taxpayer-supported hellhole near the Anacostia River known as the D.C. jail.

What happened to Magbie at the jail and at Greater Southeast Community Hospital, where his life ended five days later, shouldn't happen to a dog. In fact, it doesn't happen to dogs and cats in the custody of decent and caring people. But Magbie had no one in his corner except his mother, Mary Scott, and she could not join him in jail. In the intervening 12 months, the continuum of players responsible for Magbie's last days on Earth has never had it so good.

Retchin's handling of the Magbie case was reviewed by the D.C. Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure: It gave her grace, and she was subsequently rewarded with a renewed assignment to the court's coveted criminal docket so that more Retchin-style justice can be meted out to the criminal-minded.

Odie Washington, director of the Corrections Department, which runs the D.C. jail, retired with full honors and words of praise from the mayor. And Greater Southeast Community Hospital, which treats the District's sick inmates under a lucrative D.C. government contract, continues to collect D.C. checks, courtesy of city taxpayers.

The only person made to pay for the mistreatment of Jonathan Magbie has been Magbie himself. But perhaps not for long.

On the anniversary of his imprisonment, attorneys retained by Magbie's mother will file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court against the D.C. government and the hospital charging them with medical malpractice and violations of the D.C. Human Rights Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act and the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

Magbie's lawyers are no slouches. Two of them, Donald Temple and Ed Connor, successfully sued the Eddie Bauer clothing store chain in 1997 for falsely imprisoning and defaming three young black men on suspicion of shoplifting. The federal jury required the company to pay $1 million.

Temple and Connor are joined by the American Civil Liberties Union's Eighth Amendment specialists in prisoners' rights, Elizabeth Alexander and Arthur Spitzer. Together they have done the job that the D.C. inspector general's office and the mayor's office told me they would do -- but did not. Magbie's lawyer found out what happened to him during those five fateful days a year ago. And they want to tell that story to a federal judge and jury.

Among the evidence they will present is an affidavit and medical opinion from Jerry S. Walden, a prison medicine expert and former chief medical officer at the U.S. penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind. After a review of records from the D.C. jail and Greater Southeast Community Hospital, interviews with various sources and a look at the pertinent medical literature, Walden concluded that "Jonathan Magbie died a death of neglect."

There were, Walden said, many parts to the failure to take Magbie's health seriously. "Certainly the tracheostomy accident [Magbie's tracheostomy was misaligned, shoved back in, and not tied to maintain a correct position] could have been prevented and happened while being monitored.

"His pneumonia [noted during the initial jail examination] was essentially undiagnosed and untreated. Despite the early X-ray and the sputum production, no one sent a sputum specimen and started treatment. All this was complicated by his nutritional status." (Magbie weighed 130 pounds at jail intake on Monday, Sept. 20. Five days later, at his autopsy exam, he weighed 90 pounds).

"He had been in the emergency room on day one [rushed from the jail to Greater Southeast and returned the next day] and had fluid and sugar deficits noted. No one cared that he wasn't eating or measured his fluid intake after."

Although Magbie needed a respirator and made that fact known on his first day at the jail, he was never given one during his five days in custody. "There were no physicians consult nor pulmonary consult performed while in the jail. He was monitored by license practical nurses. No RN [registered nurse] or PA [physician's assistant] or doctor followed him or was even consulted about" drastic changes in his condition.

Disaster struck on Sept. 24, his last day at the jail -- and in this world. The lawsuit will detail what happened that day.

None of this will soften the blows that Magbie received from the D.C. government. None of this will bring him back or end the weeping and sorrow in his family. But Magbie deserves justice. This is an opportunity. We are obliged to try.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company