Nicole Brambila at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal over the weekend (Oct. 18) offered up a portrait of local death in custody cases, basing the story on the list compiled at the Attorney General referenced in this recent Grits post. Well done. This same type story can and should be localized by media in other jurisdictions around the state.
The most dramatic element in the article was the saga of Benjamin McCoin, whose death at the Montford psychiatric unit occurred due to injuries sustained while being restrained by guards. The Tarrant medical examiner called the death an accident; the Lubbock medical examiner labeled it a "homicide." TDCJ spokesflak Jason Clark understatedly told the paper, “It’s certainly a unique situation where you have differing causes of death between two medical examiners.” Indeed, isn't it?
Lubbock County Medical Examiner Sridhar Natarajan has reviewed four death cases from Montford in the past year. "In two of the cases the state said were natural deaths — including McCoin’s — Natarajan has changed the cause, out of concern," reported Brambila. Here are more details on the other case:
The second involved 27-year-old Marsele Dauntri Thompson, who in January was found unresponsive in his cell. Tasha Z. Greenberg, M.D., in Tarrant County reported finding “no evidence of trauma or foul play.”
And yet, the autopsy records evidence of a contusion on Thompson’s forehead in the process of healing, as well as abrasions around his eyes and and additional contusions on his arm and thigh.
Correctional officers were supposed to be conducting 15-minute checks on Thompson, a schizophrenic on water restriction for his personal safety. However, when officers discoveredExcellent reporting. Nice to see local journalists following up on those death-in-custody reports. There's no way such stories get reported unless somebody's doing the grunt-work to follow up on the details of individual cases in the AG report.
Thompson sitting nude in his cell with his legs crossed, his body was cold.
Generally, a body is stiff and warm at two hours. It’s stiff and cool between four and six hours.
“When the body was found it was cold, in rigor,” Nataranjan said. “That’s not going to happen within a 15-minute check. It doesn’t match with 15-minute checks.”
Natarajan reported the death undetermined.
“If I’m not able to explain it, I’m not going to give a cause of death,” Nataranjan said.
The Texas Office of Inspector General is also investigating Thompson’s death, Clark said.
These sorts of regional and local stories are low hanging fruit for reporters elsewhere, it should be emphasized. That AG death-in-custody list represents a huge cache of under-utilized story leads that typically aren't followed by local reporters because they require work and the government hasn't handed them the story on a platter. This article shows what's possible with just a little elbow grease. You never know what you'll find until you look. One hopes others follow suit.