Monday, February 8, 2010

New Week, Same Complaint?

Last week, the Akron Beacon Journal had some strong words for the Sheriff and progress -- or lack of -- in the jailhouse death of inmate Mark McCullaugh. Something tells me they won't be very happy with this week's news, either.

In the editorial and on Friday night's NewsNight Akron television program, the newspaper opined the public deserved to know far more about the death of jail inmate Mark McCullaugh three years ago. For those not following from home, McCullaugh died under the cloud of rough handling when he died under struggle with deputies.

The newspaper charges the delay in finding out what really happened behind bars in the jail's mental health unit -- where, one must point out, McCullaugh was almost a regular -- is still missing an independent and complete assessment. The ABJ then goes on to muse a strong county executive would have wrapped all this up by now.

Despite seeing one deputy cleared of murder; despite five deputies cleared of criminal charges, and another deputy cleared of perjury; despite civil suit settlements that took all those years, still there's no clear picture on what happened.

I don't think the latest release is going to help shed anymore light on exactly what led to the tortured life of a man who should have been in any institution other than a jail, except for the fact that we as a society have decided it isn't right to provide middle ground for the Mark McCullaughs who are a danger to themselves, others close to them, and the men and women we trust to treat their health and watch over their safety.

On pulling the County Executive into the fray, it bears pointing out an independent Sheriff isn't exactly why McCullaugh died behind bars. Raising the issue of charter government is the kind of political distraction one usually sees in Washington, not Akron.

In fact, County Executive Russ Pry provided an attorney from the County's law department to investigate. According to an executive summary by Linda Murphy, released Friday by Sheriff Drew Alexander, there are several points from her independent examination that don't quite mesh with the conventional account we've read the past three years.

She says:
  • no criminal charges should have been bought against the five Summit County deputies, no state or federal laws were violated and no policies of the Sheriff's office were violated;
  • the deputies involved should have never been indicted in the first place, and blames pursuit of an indictment on Grand Jury "misled by an incomplete and poor investigation";
  • among the issues: the special investigator of the Ohio BCI (Bureau of Criminal Investigation) provided testimony that was "incorrect and inflammatory" and that laws on use of force "...were not properly reviewed and may not have been understood..." by investigator William O'Connor;
  • O'Connor's testimony that McCullaugh was not a threat to himself or anyone else ignored the record of seven prior suicide attempts, four threats to kill his ex-wife, more than a dozen incidents of "homicidal and violent behavior" and even two cases where his mother was afraid he would kill or harm her;
Murphy's report also disputes central tenants of the scenario used to indict, noting medical testimony "defied logic" and came from the medical examiner, George Sterbenz, who never even looked at McCullaugh's medical records until after signing the death certificate, and charges that McCullaugh was "..hogtied, anally raped, pepper sprayed and tasered..." excessively could not be confirmed by the evidence.

Murphy goes on to note Doctor Sterbenz apparently was even confused over how pepper spray works, contradicting the testimony of five others -- including emergency room doctor, paramedic, deputy and nurses at the jail. She even points to a lack of evidence backing up a claim by Deputy Joshua Griffin that other deputies used excessive force -- even after Griffin admitted he changed his testimony and recanted. Griffin is the deputy who escaped perjury charges last week when another Grand Jury issued a "no bill", or failure to indict.

Expect to see and hear more from Murphy's report -- the kind of independent review from the Executive's office the newspaper called for -- later this week.

The Beacon Journal may be right about one thing: it is highly unlikely we'll know what happened inside the confines of the mental health unit that left McCullaugh dead, 11 others injured or involved directly, and the lives of six corrections officers in legal purgatory for years.

What we do know is the system didn't work for Mark McCullaugh or those Summit County deputies, hospital and social workers who came into contact with a man out of control and in such rage use of force meant nothing. Society didn't like the idea of men and woman wandering in rubber-walled hellholes. Thanks to stereotypes such as "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and a public thirst for bars instead of in-control treatment, we aren't likely to get a safe place to protect those who would harm us and themselves soon.

Sheriff Drew Alexander has taken a harsh rap for this case, and unfairly. He's been consistent about sharing information as much as he could with lawsuits and investigations swirling, while calling attention to the greater problem beyond the tragedy of Mark McCullaugh. Alexander noted, early on, that this wasn't just an isolated exposure of a system that doesn't work well.

When do we face the next Mark McCullaugh?

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