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Death by Harsh Sentencing and Deliberate Indifference

Will Matthews,
ACLU of Northern California
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December 5, 2008

As Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King rightly points out in a 2004 column, Jonathan Magbie’s death four years ago was unlike those of so many other young, African-American men in Washington D.C. He wasn’t gunned down or stabbed on the streets, it wasn’t a house fire that prematurely ended his life and he didn’t die in a car crash, though an accident he was in as a 4-year-old child left him paralyzed from the neck down. No, the death of Magbie, 27, is a tragic story of systemic failures to care for the most vulnerable members of our society, and the horrendous potential ramifications of our society’s rush to criminalize through illogical and arbitrary drug laws. Magbie had never been convicted of any crime — he had absolutely no criminal record — when he was picked up in September 2004 for possessing a joint. He had a single marijuana cigarette, something Magbie said he sometimes smoked to alleviate the excruciating pain he was forced to endure as a result of a variety of maladies stemming from his paralysis. His arrest was only the beginning of a horrifying journey that would lead to Magbie dying while under the supposed watch of the D.C. government — alone, forgotten and uncared for. Magbie’s death could have and should have been prevented at any number of different junctures. His life would have been spared had D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith E. Retchin chosen to give Magbie probation, the typical punishment for someone with no prior criminal record. Instead, saying that unless he spent time behind bars Magbie would continue to smoke marijuana to alleviate his pain, Retchin gave him a 10-day jail sentence despite the fact that D.C.’s Central Detention Facility didn’t have a ventilator — something Magbie needed to be able to breathe properly while he slept at night. The day after his sentencing, a jail doctor called Retchin’s law clerk to say that Magbie shouldn’t be incarcerated given his overall medical condition. No matter: Magbie remained locked up. Magbie’s life would have been spared had jail doctors done a follow-up examination of Magbie, or if they had even managed to conduct their daily rounds to check on patients. Neither happened. As a result, Magbie developed acute pneumonia which wasn’t properly treated, he didn’t receive necessary fluids or nutrition and he became severely dehydrated and malnourished. He slipped into acute respiratory crisis and died. His absurd punishment of 10 days in jail had become a death sentence. The ACLU National Prison Project this week announced the settlement of a wrongful death lawsuit filed on behalf of Magbie’s mother and against a number of defendants, including D.C. officials. But even the “substantial” settlement won’t bring Magbie back to life. As Edward J. Connor, another attorney representing Ms. Scott, said, “we can only hope this settlement will help to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”