Way back on Oct. 1, there was a lot of big news on the front page. The first presidential debate had taken place the night before. Dozens of children had been killed by a car bomb in Iraq. The blockbuster arthritis drug Vioxx had just been withdrawn by its manufacturer, and House Majority Leader Tom Delay (R-Tex.) had been rebuked by that chamber's ethics committee.
But one of the most compelling stories in the paper that day, briefly referred to on Page A1, appeared on the front page of Metro, by reporter Henri E. Cauvin. It was a story about Jonathan Magbie, a 27-year-old man from Mitchellville who had been sent to jail in the District of Columbia the previous week under a 10-day sentence for marijuana possession, his first offense, to which he had pleaded guilty.
That doesn't seem like big news, except, as Cauvin wrote, "He never made it home." Magbie was a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down after he was struck by a drunk driver when he was 4. He was barely five feet tall and 120 pounds and moved around in a motorized wheelchair that he operated with his chin. For almost everything else, Cauvin wrote, including keeping his lungs clear, he depended on others. He needed a ventilator to help him breathe at night. Five days into his sentence, Magbie died in the custody of the D.C. corrections system. The details of his death, as The Post's story noted, were first reported by the local ABC-TV station, WJLA-TV (Channel 7).
Cauvin's story made clear that there were many questions surrounding this death involving whether the D.C. Superior Court and the D.C. Department of Corrections did enough to ensure adequate care for Magbie. He reported that, by the court's standards, the 10-day sentence rendered by Judge Judith E. Retchin was unusually punitive for a first-time offender, that a pre-sentence report had recommended probation and that the U.S. attorney's office had not objected.
Since then, the Post has written an editorial about this highly controversial case. It has published several letters to the editor, including one from the chief judge of the Superior Court, Rufus G. King III, and five columns on the op-ed page by deputy editorial page editor Colbert I. King.
There has not been a word in the paper's news columns since the initial story. One letter, on Oct. 25, said, "I would like The Post to continue monitoring this story and situation. This is too important to ignore." Another reader, in an unpublished e-mail, said that Magbie's death should not be treated as some aberration that does not require that anything be fixed.
Cauvin's job is to cover the Superior Court, a busy place, and that first story about Magbie's death was quite a good one. But to go beyond what was a murky yet clearly powerful drama about how and why Magbie died requires a lot of other reporting at other places, including the Corrections Department and the Health Department, as well as with lawyers, family, doctors, nurses and other inmates. That's what King did, and the news side of the paper did not do.
So all of what we know since that first story comes from the tenacious reporting of King on the op-ed page. And he has added a lot.
When Magbie arrived at the jail, as that first story reported, a medical evaluation later that evening found him in need of "acute medical attention," and he was transferred to Greater Southeast Community Hospital. The next day, he was discharged and sent back to the corrections facility. King reported that, contrary to initial reports from anonymous court officials, a jail doctor did not request that the hospital take him back and that the hospital, therefore, did not rebuff any such request. His reporting disclosed a transcript of a July hearing about Magbie's case in which an assistant U.S. attorney told the judge that he did not think the jail could accommodate Magbie because of his condition.
King reported that the D.C. Health Department's investigation of the death was completed on Oct. 22 but is under review and has not been made public. He also reported an official cause of death. He reported that it was at the jail, that first night of Sept. 20, that nurses learned that Magbie required ventilator equipment for breathing at night. An agreement was eventually reached that allowed Magbie's mother to bring his ventilator to the jail on Sept. 24. But he had already been taken back to the hospital, where he died that night.
People die, or are killed, in difficult and unusual circumstances every day in big cities and usually get a paragraph or two, if that. It's impossible for news organizations to follow up on the details of all such deaths. But sometimes these passings carry with them much larger tales, and, when they are pursued, a light is shone into corners of our society, revealing how our institutions deal with such situations. That's what King has done.
Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at email@example.com.