Commentary

A familiar story of death in custody

Seven days…

Over several days in October 2009, a young man in handcuffs, escorted on either side by  stone-faced officers or guards, was taken from his cell to court, from court back to jail, from jail to a hospital and eventually to a prison infirmary. His narrow face was covered with purple bruises, his eyes were swollen and blackened, and his body was hunched over.

Neither Cucchi nor his custodians, knew that he had two broken vertebrae and ruptured internal organs; he told another cellmate that his injuries were the result of a beating from two police officers shortly after his arrest.

By Day Seven, 31-year old Stefano Cucchi, dehydrated and emaciated, was dead.

Cucchi, an architectural draftsman, had a history of drug use and epileptic seizures. Medical experts said that these factors contributed to his death. His injuries, they said, were the result of a fall.

According to an article this month in The Laziali:

“(A) trial, which ended in June of 2013, found four doctors from the Sandro Pertini hospital guilty of manslaughter and another guilty of making a false statement. The court acquitted six others, including nurses and prison guards, with the court finding that they had not contributed to Cucchi’s death…

“(An) appeal hearing overturned the decision of the lower court and acquitted all those accused of wrongdoing in the Cucchi case…

“Prosecutors are now saying Cucchi was unlawfully killed. It is believed that three members of Italy’s Carabinieri police who arrested Cucchi are allegedly responsible for punching, slapping and kicking him. There’s no news on when this will appear in court, although the other officers appear to have lied to cover up for their colleagues violent treatment of Cucchi.”

Bad memories

So why do I care about a death that occurred in Italy almost ten years ago?

Well, last week, I viewed the Netflix original movie, “On My Skin,” based on this case and was profoundly saddened by Cucchi’s ordeal.

It called to mind the 2015 death of 25–year old Freddie Gray in Baltimore; he suffered a broken neck when he was transported, handcuffed with legs shackled, unrestrained in a police van. He died a week later. Six officers were charged, but acquitted.

The U.S. Department of Justice did not, bring civil rights charges against the officers. In 2017, The Baltimore Sun reported that after “an extensive review of this tragic event, conducted by career prosecutors and investigators,” officials concluded that “the evidence is insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt” that the officers involved in Gray’s arrest “willfully violated” his civil rights.”

In July 2013, Sandra Bland, a 28-year old black woman was stopped by state trooper, Brian Encinia, for a traffic violation in Waller County, Texas (while she was driving to a new job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University). After a verbal exchange and scuffle with the officer, Bland was arrested for “assaulting an officer.”

Three days later, she was found hanged in her cell. Her death was ruled a suicide. Bland’s family said that it was unlikely that she would have killed herself. Although a grand jury declined to indict Encinia, he was convicted of perjury (for false statements he made about the arrest); he is no longer in law enforcement.

A personal loss

In the early morning hours of June 14, 1999, a correctional officer discovered my son, Damon Anthony Moyler, non-responsive in his cell at Wende Correctional Facility in upstate New York. He was transported to the local medical center, where doctors pronounced him dead at age 35.

At no time, did the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision contact me regarding the events surrounding his death. In a telephone conversation with the deputy warden, I was assured that I would receive a formal report about his death. It never came.

In July 2005, I requested that the NY State Commission of Correction (responsible for “mortality investigations”) send me any reports related to my son’s death.

The response: “Please be advised that on January 24, 2000, both the Commission and Medical Review Board administratively closed the…investigation without a final report and as such the Commission currently maintains no documents responsive to your request.”

Despite no history of heart trouble or asthma, his death certificate states the “immediate cause of death” as “Cardiomyopathy with sudden fatal arrhythmia.”

The “Other (sic) significant condition contributing to death but not related to cause given in Part 1” was listed as “Bronchial asthma.”

Several months later, I interviewed his friend (who had been housed on the same cell block), who told me that most of the inmates on D-block disputed the prison’s account of events. He said that he was surprised when he heard the cause of death because Damon had never shown signs of poor health.

Unfortunately, I will never know exactly happened to my, otherwise healthy, son that morning. Foul play or a natural death?

Official apathy

What these incidents have in common is the seeming reluctance of correctional officials, police departments, prosecutors, grand juries, or federal authorities to aggressively pursue investigations or, when warranted, bring charges against (and convict) those responsible for persons in custody.

Consequently, it is not unreasonable for the families of those in jails or prisons to fear for the safety of their loved ones or to mistrust official inquiries into a death or physical assault.

Too often, it seems, men and women with drug histories, with mental illness or criminal records are deemed less worthy of empathy–in life and in death, no matter the country they live in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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