Mary Scott was doing fine as she reviewed with me by phone the events that unfolded after Monday, Sept. 20, when Judge Judith Retchin sentenced her 27-year-old son, a first-time offender and quadriplegic -- paralyzed from the neck down -- to 10 days in the D.C. jail for possession of marijuana. Scott, however, lost her composure when she got to Friday, Sept. 24, the day she took her son's much-needed ventilator to the jail. You would have choked up, too.
Since his injury in a car crash at age 4, Jonathan Magbie had been under nursing care 24 hours a day. A chin-operated wheelchair was his mode of transportation. The 24-hour coverage was a little too intrusive, Scott told me, so the family limited the care to 20 hours and took care of the rest themselves.
When Scott heard that Judge Retchin had announced in court that Jonathan would get the care he needed in jail, she felt a little better.
Her fears were also lessened after she spoke with Janet Holt, the associate nursing director at the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), the jail's annex, where Jonathan was to be incarcerated. Boniface Cobbina, Jonathan's lawyer, had arranged for Scott to speak with Holt on the day Jonathan was sent to jail. Holt assured Scott that the CTF could perform the lung suctioning procedure that Jonathan required. In response to Holt's questions about Jonathan's medications, Scott said her son might know what they were, but she didn't believe he knew the prescribed dosages, so she immediately arranged for Jonathan's nurse to fax the correct information to Holt. Scott followed up in a phone call and was assured by Holt that the fax had been received and would be given to "Dr. Malek." Corrections spokesman Bill Meeks advised that Dr. Malek is Malek Malekghasemi, the CTF's associate medical director.
Scott said she received a call from a woman at the jail on Jonathan's first day in the city's custody, telling her that he had been taken to Greater Southeast Community Hospital and that she should come to the jail to collect his wheelchair. The jailer called back within minutes, however, and told Scott she could not pick up the wheelchair.
Scott rushed to the hospital with her daughter and a friend of Jonathan's. They were joined by their lawyer, Cobbina, whom Scott had called from the hospital. Together they spoke with one of the correctional officers who had accompanied Jonathan to the hospital and were told he was comfortable. They were not allowed to see him, though Scott said she did receive a call at home around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday from the same correctional officer, who said Jonathan was still resting well at the hospital.
Scott was surprised to learn from one of Jonathan's friends later in the day that he had been returned to the jail's annex. She called Cobbina and told him that Jonathan needed his ventilator. (The Corrections Department acknowledged that on the night Jonathan was taken to the hospital, he informed the corrections medical staff that he used a ventilator at night.) She said she also called Malekghasemi and told him the same thing. She recalled the doctor saying: "I don't know why the judge sent him here." He said he was going to call the judge "to talk some sense into her," Scott said.
The next day, Wednesday, Sept. 22, Cobbina visited Jonathan in jail and reported that her son said he still required his ventilator, Scott said. On Thursday Cobbina called Scott and told her that Corrections officials had agreed that she could take Jonathan's ventilator to the CTF on Friday morning at 10 a.m.
Scott arrived around 9:30 a.m. and waited in the lobby for 45 minutes before Malekghasemi came to see her. She handed him Jonathan's ventilator, a suction cap and a pediatric device to be used because the opening in his throat was so small. Malekghasemi took the ventilator but told her he didn't need the other equipment and then left. Scott asked the guard if she could visit her son but was told she couldn't because she did not have an appointment.
At the time Scott met the doctor, Jonathan had already been transported to Greater Southeast Community Hospital on an emergency basis. Scott said the doctor knew Jonathan had been taken away but didn't tell her. "If I had known, I could have told them what might have been wrong with him and how they could help him," she told me, distress obvious in her voice.
Later that day -- Friday, Sept. 24 -- five days after Jonathan Magbie was placed in the custody of the government of the District of Columbia, Scott received a call telling her that her son was dead.
Cobbina, in a separate interview, said Malekghasemi also told him on Tuesday, Sept. 21, that he would call Judge Retchin with his concerns about Jonathan's incarceration, given his medical condition. The Corrections Department, in an e-mail response to my questions, confirmed that "A [CTF] physician spoke with the judge's law clerk on September 21, 2004, and expressed his personal concern that inmate Magbie did not belong in the D.C. jail. The physician shared his personal concern that inmate Magbie should not be incarcerated given the nature of the sentence and his overall medical condition. The physician did not request that the judge order Mr. Magbie's return to Greater Southeast Community Hospital."
The circumstances leading up to Scott's taking the ventilator to the CTF are in dispute.
In an e-mail response, Corrections wrote that on Wednesday afternoon Jonathan's lawyer called the CTF physician and indicated that a ventilator might be available from his mother and that the attorney would call the CTF physician back with confirmation. The CTF physician called the attorney on Thursday and an agreement was made to deliver the ventilator the next day.
Cobbina, on the other hand, said he told Malekghasemi on Thursday that Jonathan needed his ventilator and that the doctor said he didn't want "gadgets" introduced into the jail because they would only "complicate" matters. "Twenty minutes later," Cobbina said, the doctor called back and said, "Why don't you ask her to bring it in the morning?"
The death of Jonathan Magbie, I have learned, is now under investigation by the D.C. Department of Health and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. That's not enough. The D.C. inspector general and the D.C. Council may wish to weigh in as well, lest the informal network of D.C. bureaucrats who look out for each other attempts to make Jonathan's death appear as natural as the sunset. It wasn't.
These questions need answering.
Why on earth should Jonathan, a first-time offender who had lived most of his life in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic and who required virtually round-the-clock nursing, have been sent to jail for simple possession of marijuana?
Why is it that even after the Corrections Department learned on Monday that inmate Jonathan Magbie needed a medical device the jail did not have and would not provide, and even after an associate medical director determined on Tuesday that Jonathan's medical condition weighed against jail incarceration -- why is it that he nonetheless languished in jail until Friday, the day he died?
Finally, consider this exchange between Judge Retchin and Jonathan Magbie's lawyer at the time, Nikki Lotze, back on Jan. 14 at a status hearing:
Judge: Good morning. Where is Mr. Magbie?
Lawyer: Your Honor, I wonder if the court would consider waiving his presence; he was hospitalized. He's not hospitalized right now, but he was released earlier in the week having had a bout of pneumonia.
Judge: No, I would not waive his presence. He needs to be here.
Lawyer: I'll see if I can get him here later in the day, your honor. But, could we waive his presence just for purposes of scheduling matters and then I'll have him. . . .
Judge: I'll issue a warrant for his arrest. It will be no bond as to Mr. Magbie.
What a sweetheart.