The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

$750,000 settlement reached in death of mentally ill inmate in Fairfax County

An image from video shows Fairfax County deputies trying to restrain Natasha McKenna in February 2015. (Farifax County Sheriff’s Office/AP)

The family of a mentally ill inmate who died after a struggle with deputies at the Fairfax County jail in 2015 has reached a $750,000 settlement with the county sheriff’s office to resolve a wrongful-death lawsuit, according to court records.

The sheriff does not have to admit liability in the death of Natasha McKenna, 37, under the terms of the settlement, which was reached in February but not made public by the sheriff’s office or the family’s attorney. The proceeds will go to McKenna’s ­10-year-old daughter.

McKenna stopped breathing after resisting attempts by deputies to remove her from her cell in February 2015 to transfer her to Alexandria, where she faced charges of punching a police officer the month before. McKenna died soon after.

Fairfax County inmate who died was Tasered after being shackled

Video of the incident released by the sheriff’s office shows deputies in white biohazard suits shackling McKenna in her cell, wrestling her, attempting to place her in a restraint chair and then repeatedly shocking her with a stun gun as she resists them.

Deputies eventually strapped McKenna into the chair, but a nurse discovered the inmate had no pulse after she was taken to a jail entrance to board a van. She was taken to a hospital and died days later.

A medical examiner ruled McKenna’s death was accidental, a result of a condition called “excited delirium” in which a person with mental illness or on drugs grows so excited his or her heart gives out.

Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid called McKenna’s death a “tragedy” at the time but defended her deputies. Fairfax County prosecutors cleared the deputies of criminal wrongdoing.

Some mental-health and use-of-force experts criticized the deputies’ aggressive approach to handling a woman who was restrained and suffering from schizophrenia. Activists with the Black Lives Matter movement also took up the case of McKenna, who was African American.

McKenna’s case spurred Kincaid and Fairfax County to start a program in 2016 that attempts to divert nonviolent offenders with mental illness into treatment instead of the jail.

Fairfax County launches diversion program for the mentally ill

McKenna’s family alleged in the lawsuit filed in 2016 that the sheriff was responsible for McKenna’s death, through gross negligence or intentional misconduct. The family was initially seeking $15.3 million in damages.

When reached for comment, Harvey Volzer, an attorney for McKenna’s family, said that the settlement contained a nondisclosure agreement that barred him from talking about the terms of the deal and that the details were under seal.

But the public case file for the lawsuit in Fairfax County Circuit Court contained the settlement agreement, and no nondisclosure agreement was found. Volzer did not return a call seeking to clarify his statements. The Virginia Supreme Court has also ruled that wrongful-death settlements are public records that cannot be made confidential.

The sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the settlement.

Christine Wilson, McKenna’s mother, could not be reached for comment but said in a 2015 interview with The Washington Post that her daughter had been diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 12. She said McKenna had been growing more erratic in the weeks leading up to her arrest in January 2015.

“They didn’t need to confront her this way. They made it worse,” Wilson said of her daughter’s encounter with the sheriff’s deputies. “She was mentally sick.”