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Man charged in fatal stabbing is D.C. jail’s first inmate to die of covid-19

It was just a matter of time, defense attorneys and criminal justice reform advocates in the District have said.

The D.C. jail on Monday announced that an inmate who had tested positive for the novel coronavirus had died, the first in-custody death that has been attributed to covid-19 at the facility.

The inmate, 51-year-old Deon M. Crowell, had been in the jail since 2018, when he was charged with first-degree murder in the death of a D.C. woman. He was accused of stabbing Joni “Sharette” Rockingham more than 70 times.

As of Tuesday night, 55 inmates had tested positive for the virus, jail officials said. All but two were housed in the jail’s Correctional Treatment Facility. That is where Crowell was.

Crowell’s attorney Elizabeth Weller had petitioned a D.C. Superior Court judge to have her client released as he awaited trial. She argued that Crowell’s diabetes and other health challenges associated with the disease put him at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus. That petition was pending when Crowell fell ill.

There was “no reason for him to die,” Weller said of Crowell in a statement Monday.

“The entire system failed him. We only hope this serves as a wake up call so it does not happen to anyone else.”

On March 20, five days before the jail announced its first inmate had tested positive for the virus, Weller filed her petition with Judge Danya Dayson. “He is considered high risk to suffer deadly or extremely serious consequences if he gets sick,” Weller wrote of Crowell. Weller asked that the judge allow Crowell to be confined at home with family members and be placed on GPS monitoring. He was scheduled to go to trial in September.

Defense attorneys in the District have been seeking to have hundreds of inmates released, fearing the virus would spread throughout the jail.

Many of those inmates were accused of nonviolent crimes or were nearing the ends of their sentences. Others have preexisting health conditions or are older, putting them at greater risk of illness.

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Similar efforts are ongoing across the country, including in Virginia and Maryland. Maryland on Monday announced the first covid-19 death of a prison inmate there.

The inmate, who was hospitalized when he died, was in his 60s and had serious underlying medical conditions, officials said. Virginia prison officials on Tuesday said a 49-year-old female inmate who was serving a sentence in a drug case had died after contracting the virus.

In federal court in the District, the city’s Public Defender Service joined the American Civil Liberties Union in a class-action lawsuit on behalf of city inmates. The lawsuit argues that the virus can spread quickly at the jail and seeks a federal judge’s intervention in an effort to improve conditions at the facility. Jail officials have argued that they have already met government standards in cleaning the facility and screening and treating inmates for the virus.

The population of the facility has decreased amid the federal case and other efforts, including emergency legislation passed by the D.C. Council and litigation by the Public Defender Service. In a court filing Tuesday, a D.C. Superior Court judge said the number of D.C. jail inmates serving sentences for misdemeanor convictions has fallen from 94 to nine since the novel coronavirus outbreak, with an additional individual completing a sentence at a halfway house. Motions to release those nine were denied based on factors including dangerousness.

The total number of inmates in the jail Tuesday evening could not immediately be determined.

On Wednesday during a hearing for the lawsuit in federal court, two independent experts are scheduled to deliver an oral report of their findings on the conditions inside the jail.

Jail officials said Crowell tested positive for the coronavirus on April 7 and was taken to a hospital that day.

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Two days after Crowell tested positive, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gauri Gopal opposed Weller’s motion for his release. Gopal argued that releasing Crowell would have placed the community in danger.

Crowell was charged with the 2017 murder of Rockingham, 43. In Gopal’s filing, prosecutors alleged Crowell stabbed Rockingham and then dumped her body in a garbage bin outside an abandoned home in the 300 block of 34th Street NE.

Gopal said Crowell, who is married, had a sexual relationship with Rockingham and that the two met to smoke crack cocaine a day after Thanksgiving in 2017, while Crowell’s wife was out of town.

A woman who answered the phone at the Rockingham home on Tuesday declined to comment.

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After her family reported her missing, Rockingham’s body was found in the bin nearly a month later.

Authorities alleged Crowell’s DNA was found on Rockingham’s body.

Prosecutors also raised Crowell’s criminal past as a reason not to release him. Crowell was convicted of first-degree assault in 1996 for stabbing a woman in Maryland.

A man reached at Crowell’s Northeast Washington residence declined to comment.

Crowell had initially been scheduled to go to trial in October, but Weller said the proceedings were delayed after prosecutors revealed that footage from the investigation captured on police body-worn cameras had been deleted.

The judge overseeing the trial allowed the proceedings to be delayed a year to allow Weller to investigate further.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the delay or on Crowell’s death.

Timothy Shea, U.S. attorney for the District, has argued against the unilateral release of inmates, saying such a decision could be dangerous to the community while also sending a message of a lack of accountability to victims and their families.

Scott Michelman, the ACLU’s legal director, said attorneys were not seeking the release of all inmates.

Instead, he said, if more nonviolent inmates or those facing misdemeanor charges were released, those inmates who remain behind bars could be spread out throughout the jail, making it easier to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“We’re not saying open the doors. We’re saying there needs to be a comprehensive approach that reduces the overall population to the point where everyone who remains is housed safely,” Michelman said. “Incarceration, even for a very serious crime, should not be a death sentence. When this pandemic is not properly controlled, it is clear that individuals will die from it. And that is something that the Department of Corrections has a responsibility for taking precautions to prevent.”

Fenit Nirappil, Magda Jean-Louis and Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.

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