Fairfax County’s head prosecutor announced Tuesday that he will not pursue charges in the controversial death of a mentally ill woman who died after being restrained and Tasered at the Fairfax County jail in February.
Natasha McKenna, 37, resisted a team of deputies trying to remove her from her cell for a transfer. The deputies placed her in handcuffs, leg restraints and a mask before Tasering her four times. McKenna stopped breathing a short time later and died days later at a hospital.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon that the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team, or SERT, which dealt with McKenna, was facing an inmate they described as having “superhuman” strength and who resisted forcefully.
“The men and women of the SERT team are good people who did their best to get her help under difficult circumstances,” Morrogh said. “They used, I think, restraint in dealing with her under the circumstances.”
The lack of charges angered McKenna’s family and local mental health advocates, who wondered why such force was employed on a woman who suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression for most of her life.
“This conclusion is ludicrous,” Harvey J. Volzer, the attorney for McKenna’s family, said in an e-mail to The Washington Post. “What caused her death was one officer using a taser four times on a completely helpless, mentally-impaired female in violation of rules governing the proper use of a taser, and seven additional officers doing nothing to intervene.”
Before the news conference, Morrogh released a 52-page report detailing his investigation of the case and decision not to file charges. The report reveals fresh details about the troubled weeks before McKenna landed in the county jail and the 19-minute struggle that led to her death.
The investigation found that McKenna had been suffering delusions, was acting erratically and was in poor health during the month of January. At one point, Morrogh wrote, McKenna climbed in the back of a stranger’s car and attempted to strangle herself with a seat belt. She was combative when police were called.
On Jan. 15, employees at a Hertz rental car agency reported that McKenna was making a disturbance. Police were called and McKenna fought with them, Morrogh’s investigation found. McKenna was hospitalized for 10 days and then arrested by county police after she was released on an outstanding warrant for allegedly assaulting the Alexandria officer Jan. 15.
Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid said previously that the Alexandria police were supposed to pick McKenna up on three occasions over the next eight days but failed to show. While McKenna was in the county jail, her mental health deteriorated, and she regularly soiled her cell.
Alexandria police said Tuesday that they had concluded their own investigation into the lapse, saying it was the result of a delay caused by a “single chain of notification.” A spokeswoman said they have a new notification system in place that will ensure prisoners are transferred in a timely fashion.
Finally, on Feb. 3, the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office decided to move McKenna itself.
A deputy initially coaxed McKenna into submitting to being handcuffed, but then she grew anxious and started resisting, according to Morrogh’s report. The emergency response team — outfitted in biohazard suits and gas masks — was sent in to restrain McKenna.
“You promised me you wouldn’t kill me,” Morrogh reports McKenna is heard saying on a video of the incident.
The team then engaged McKenna, trying to get her fully restrained. Morrogh said at his news conference that the video, which county officials plan to release, was so difficult to watch that it brought tears to his eyes.
The deputies wrestled McKenna to the ground while she cursed at members of the team and attempted to bite them, according to Morrogh’s report.
The struggle carried on for minutes as deputies struck McKenna on the knuckles.McKenna continued to resist, so a deputy Tasered her four times until McKenna was brought under control.
Morrogh wrote in his report that McKenna was alive for several minutes after the Tasering, which was inconsistent with someone suffering pulmonary arrest from a Taser shock.
McKenna was taken to a jail entrance to be transported, but she had stopped breathing. A first responder was called in, but McKenna would never fully recover and died at a hospital. Afterwards, SERT members said that McKenna’s strength was something they hadn’t seen before.
“She was . . . pushing us up almost like doing a push-up, and she was actually pressing four of us up off the ground, which was astonishing,” Morrogh’s report quotes one deputy as saying.
In April, a state medical examiner ruled that McKenna’s death was an accident linked to the use of the Taser and being restrained. Her death was attributed to a rare and controversial condition called “excited delirium,” in which a person with mental illness or on drugs grows so agitated that his or her heart suddenly gives out. People in the grip of the condition are said to have extraordinary strength.
Some medical experts dispute whether excited delirium is a real syndrome, and civil liberties groups say it is almost exclusively cited in the deaths of people in the custody of law enforcement.
The Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
Author and mental health advocate Pete Earley said he was dismayed at Morrogh’s ruling.
“This is an example of how people with mental illness are marginalized and blamed for their own fate when in fact the deputies there created a situation that was explosive and could have been de-escalated,” Earley wrote in an e-mail.
A federal probe into McKenna’s death is continuing.