The father of a man whose death prompted two investigations of the Fairfax County Jail filed suit for $1.5 million yesterday claiming that his son's death was caused by "an extraordinary series of callous activities" on the part of public officials.
The suit, filed in federal court in Alexandria against the county and 10 Fairfax and state officials, was the latest repercussion from the death of Donald Ferguson, a 28-year old construction worker. He died last Dec. 8 after being held in shackles at the jail.
Two panels that have investigated Ferguson's death have reached sharply different conclusions. A report issued this week by Republican Gov. John N. Dalton said it could find no evidence that Ferguson was mistreated at the jail, contradicting a panel of Northern Virginia Democrats who earlier blamed the death on a lack of proper medical treatment.
Ferguson had been arrested Dec. 2 for failing to pay a $50 fine. He lapsed into acute alcohol withdrawal two days after he was placed in the jail and died at a state-run mental hospital in Staunton two days after he was transferred there.
The suit filed yesterday accused Claude Cooper, chief medical examiner for the county, of having certified Ferguson as "mentally ill without even examining him."
When officials held a commitment hearing on Dec. 5 and Dec. 6 to determine if Ferguson should be hospitalized, the "stench being created by the poor medical condition" of Ferguson forced the officials to remain outside his jail cell, the suit claims. At the time Ferguson lay unconscious in a corner, according to the suit.
On Dec. 6, Ferguson was "trundled off to Western State Hospital," where he lay "for two days with temperatures reaching as high as 105-degrees without virtually any medical care," the suit alleges. "Even though (Ferguson) would have been saved by proper medical treatment, he received none," according to the suit.
The death and treatment inmates receive at the Fairfax jail has been a key issue in the current race to succeed Sheriff James Swinson, one of the county officials named as a defendant in the lawsuit, Swinson, a popular Republican, is not seeking reelection. He could not be reached for comment yesterday.
In January Swinson told a reporter: "Going through the door of my jail is not a ticket to eternal life . . . It doesn't make a rat's ass if I'm sheriff or you're sheriff."
Those remarks were incorporated in the suit as an example of Swinson's attitude. The Ferguson case "is consistent with a long running problem at the Fairfax County jail," the suit claims.
Chief medical examiner Cooper could not be reached for comment.
The suit, brought in the name of Ferguson's father, Howard F. Ferguson Sr., seeks $500,000 in compensatory damages and $1 million in punitive damages. No trial date has been set.