A Fairfax County supervisor said yesterday that despite an autopsy report, questions remain in the death of Donald L. Ferguson, a construction worker who died Dec. 8 after confinement in the county jail.
"What I'm after is a full explanation of how it could happen that a young man is picked for a very minor violation and ends up dead," said Supervisor Warren I Cikins (D-Mount Vernon).
Ferguson, 28 was arrested on Dec. 2, charge with stealing a car battery, and sent to the county jail. He lapsed into delirium tremens-the so-called DT's, a severe form of alcohol withdrawal-two day later, according to Sheriff James D. Swinson. He died in Western State Hospital in Staunton, where he had been transferred Dec. 6 for treatment, hospital official said.
A state medical examiner's report released Tuesday said Ferguson had died on kidney failure that probably was related to alcohol withdrawal. Dr. Charles Bratnahl, a Fairfax Hospital pathologist retained by the Ferguson family to conduct a second autopsy, said yesterday that his findings tended to confirm the official report.
I would say at this point that I would have to go along with it," he said, but added that he had not yet completed laboratory analysis of tissues taken from Ferguson's body.
Dr. David M. Abbott, the jail physiscian, said yesterday that Ferguson was taktn to Staunton, which is 150 miles from the jail, because Fairfax Hospital does not have the facilities to treat severe alcohol withdrawal cases. "The detoxification unit there is really for ambulatory patients," he said.
Ferguson's death stirred charges of discrimination among black residents of the county's Gum Springs area, where Ferguson lived, and an investigation by the county supervisors into Ferguson's death.
"If you arrest somebody for comething else and this (delirium tremens) turns out to be his problem, there ought to be some procedure to get him the hell out of there," Cikins said.
According to Dr. David W. Oxley, the state medical examiner for the Western District of Virginia, Ferguson died of kidney failure and related blood poisoning. "The medical history suggests he was a victim of alcohol withdrawal," Oxley said.
Ferguson's family has said that he drank often but that alcohol did not interfere with his life and that he never went to work drunk.
Oxley said that Ferguson's liver contained excessive fat, an indication of heavy alcohol consumption. A source in the sheriff's department said that wile Ferguson was being held in the Fairfax jail, he asked for a drink in response to a question about whether there was anything he needed.
A physician familiar with alcoholism said that a person entering delirium tremens often is given a drink as a temporary remedy until thorough detoxification can begin. Giving alcohol to inmates, however, is against jail rules, Swinson said.
Ferguson was being held at the jail, according to Fairfax County police Chief Richard A. King, because he was unable to pay a court-imposed $50 fine on the battery theft charge.
Swinson said yesterday that he had completed a departmental investigation into complaints by the Ferguson family that they were not informed of Ferguson's condition or his whereabouts. Howard Ferguson Sr., Ferguson's father, has said that he went to the jail on Dec. 4 to inquire after his son but was given a runaround and finally told by a female deputy that his son was not there.
Swinson said no female deputy was on duty that day and that deputies who were present have said they don't recall any visitors asking about ferguson.
Swinson said Ferguson was treated for the swithdrawal with an injection of a tranquilizer, and that he was not taken to the state hospital in Staunton until Dec. 6 because jail officials had to get a court order to commit Ferguson.
Abbott, the jail physician, said he had examined ferguson on Dec. 5 and found him conscious, but declined to say what treatment he prescribed for Ferguson. He said Ferguson's condition apparently deteriroated after his visit. According to Swinson, Ferguson became delirious and had to be confined to a padded cell.
Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Robert F. Horan Jr. said he expected the results of the supervisors' investigation, which is being conducted by the county police department, to be on his desk by early next week. Swinson said he had found no wrongdoing in his own investigation of the Ferguson family complaints. Ferguson's father could not be reached for comment.