David Stojcevski’s violent disintegration and death over the course of 16 days is horrifying enough — his hallucinations, his rapid weight loss, the way he twitched and shook from the pain of drug withdrawal.
But that it happened in jail — under 24-hour video surveillance and the eyes of more than a dozen corrections officers and medical staff — “shocks the conscience,” Robert Ihrie, an attorney in the lawsuit over Stojcevski’s death, told the Detroit Free Press.
Stojcevski was sent to the Macomb County Jail in Mt. Clemens, Mich., on June 11, 2014, to serve a 30-day sentence after failing to appear in court over a ticket for careless driving, according to the lawsuit. During the 16 days between his imprisonment and his death, the lawsuit alleges, staff at the jail knowingly allowed him to suffer through “excruciating” acute withdrawal without treatment.
The last days of Stojcevski’s life were captured by a surveillance camera that monitored him constantly during his time in the jail’s mental health unit. Inmates in those units are stripped of clothing for precautionary reasons and checked on regularly, according to Detroit TV station WDIV.
That surveillance footage was published by WDIV Wednesday, sparking national interest in the lawsuit, which was filed several months ago. The video, which shows graphic and upsetting images of Stojcevski’s withdrawal, is on WDIV’s Web site.
Before his incarceration, Stojcevski had been prescribed Xanax, Klonopin and oxycodone — drugs used to treat anxiety and drug withdrawal. He was not given any of these medications during his time in jail, according to the lawsuit, despite the fact that Stojcevski asked for his medications and his prescriptions were easily checkable on Michigan’s Automated Prescription System.
Stojcevski’s brother, Vladimir, filed the lawsuit in March against Macomb County, Sheriff Anthony Wickersham, several officers from the Macomb County Jail and jail health-care provider Correct Care Solutions and several of its staff. In the suit, Vladimir alleges that he too was refused medication for several days before being released to a local hospital.
According to the lawsuit, the defendants violated the brothers’ constitutional rights by denying them medical care — treatment that constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
“The various defendants with malice, recklessness and callous indifference failed to provide or obtain care and treatment necessary to save David’s life,” the lawsuit says.
Vladimir Stojcevski is seeking more than $75,000 in damages.
Wickersham declined to comment on the case to the Detroit Free Press because it involves pending litigation. County Corporation Counsel John Schapka told the newspaper that “knowing the facts and circumstances of the case, I’m confident the county will prevail.”
Macomb County officials told Michigan Public Radio that jail staff followed “proper procedures” in Stojcevski’s case.
The lawsuit alleges that jail officials and medical staff knew from the start that Stojcevski was on medications for pain and addiction. During intake, he told corrections officers that he had a prescription for Methadone and was identified as having a “potential for withdrawal.”
But four days after Stojcevski was booked, he was marked as having completed his detox. Two days after that, his withdrawal symptoms began.
First, Stojcevski was found “lying on his back, unable to speak and blinking his eyes,” according to the lawsuit, citing jail records. Then he began having hallucinations, telling a member of the jail’s medical team that his organs had been removed and his heart shredded. During that conversation, he also said that he was taking Xanax and oxycodone for pain before his incarceration. He was seen “twitching on the floor,” according to the lawsuit, but was examined by a member of the medical team and pronounced “cleared.”
On June 17, Stojcevski was moved to the high-observation mental health unit.
Stojcevski’s symptoms seemed to worsen with time. He rapidly lost weight — 50 pounds in a little over two weeks, more than a quarter of his body weight — and his limbs spasmed constantly. At one point, in the surveillance video published by WDIV, he hid under his bed to escape the constant light in his cell. For the last two days before his death, he lay listless on a thin mattress on the floor of the cell, then rolled onto the cement floor itself. He was found there, struggling to breath, on June 27.
Jail personnel rushed Stojcevski to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead 95 minutes later, according to the lawsuit.
An autopsy found that the causes of his death were acute withdrawal, dehydration, electrolyte imbalance and seizures or “seizure-like activity.”
“It’s unconscionable that they let this human being suffer like this,” Donna Rockwell, a clinical psychologist who specializes in addiction and withdrawal problems, told WDIV while watching the footage. “… It’s a very obvious sign of withdrawal and anybody who has two minutes of training knows that.”
The Macomb County Jail is currently facing another lawsuit from six inmates over conditions in its mental health units, according to Michigan Public Radio. The suit claims that inmates are “tormented” by one corrections officer, “punished” by having their blankets and mattresses taken away and denied access to legal resources and, in one case, medication.
If Stojcevski had been able to pay a $772 fine on his ticket, he would not have been jailed at all. And, according to the lawsuit, a June 19 court order would have allowed Stojcevski to be released if he had enrolled in a community corrections program. But it wasn’t followed.