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Tough Justice Leads To Quadriplegic's Death In CCA-Operated D.C. Jail

Tough Justice Leads To Quadriplegic's Death
In CCA-Operated D.C. Jail

by Michael Rigby

Washington D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith E. Retchin is known for being tough on crime. She's so tough, in fact, that when a quadriplegic man came before her for possessing a small amount of marijuanahis first offenseshe sentenced him to ten days in jail. It was a death sentence.

Jonathan Magbie, 27, spent nearly his entire life paralyzed from the neck down. Struck by a drunk driver at the age of 4, Magbie was confined to a motorized wheelchair that he controlled with his chin. He was barely five feet tall and weighed just 120 pounds. Magbie relied on others for virtually everything, whether scratching an itch or flushing accumulated fluid from his lungs. He could not even breath on his own.

"Jonathan was totally dependent," said his mother, Mary Scott. When asked how he was able to inhale marijuana, she said simply, "he learned to do a lot of things."

Ten days in jail for a first time marijuana possession offense is considered exceptionally punitive by D.C. Superior Court standards. In fact, even the U.S. Attorney's office had not objected when Magbie's attorney, Boniface Cobbina, and a pre-sentence report recommended probation.

But Retchin, a former federal prosecutor, would hear none of it. She pointed out that when police stopped the car in which Magbie was riding in April 2003 they found a gun and cocaine. Magbie also told presentence investigators that smoking marijuana made him feel good and that he had no intention of quitting. "Mr. Magbie, I'm not giving you straight probation," Retchin said, according to a transcript of the September 20, 2004 hearing. "Although you did not plead guilty to having this gun, it is just unacceptable to be riding around in a car with a loaded gun in this city."

Before he was sentenced, one of Retchin's staff members contacted Chief Judge Rufus G. King III's office to inquire if D.C. Corrections could care for Magbie. Yes, came the reply. However, even the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), which houses prisoners with medical problems, would not have easily been able to care for someone like Magbie, said Philip Fornaci, executive director of the D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project. "I certainly would not say they killed him or any conclusion like that," said Fornaci. "But it certainly seems likely that he wouldn't have died if he hadn't gone to jail."

When Magbie arrived at the D.C. jail, intake personnel quickly determined he needed "acute medical attention." Roughly nine hours later, Magbie was transferred to Greater Southeast Community Hospital, which handles prisoner hospitalizations. But the hospital discharged Magbie the very next day and sent him to CTF, which is operated by Corrections Corporation of America. A CTF physician determined that Magbie needed hospitalization and asked Greater Southeast to readmit him, but the hospital refused. The physician then asked Retchin to order the hospital to readmit Magbie, but she declined saying she did not have the authority.

With Magbie at CTF, his mother and Cobbina argued with medical staff for two days before finally being given permission to bring his ventilator to the jail. At 10 a.m. on September 24, 2004, Ms. Scott showed up at CTF with the ventilator only to learn that her son had been returned to the hospital. That night, four days after he was put in jail, Magbie died.

Following Magbie's death his family marched on the courthouse with signs accusing Judge Retchin of killing him. "I'm not saying that he shouldn't have been punished, because he did smoke marijuana," Ms. Scott said the day after burying her son. "I just don't think it should have cost him his life."

The District of Columbia inspector generals office has launched an investigation into whether or not the jail was equipped to handle the obvious and serious medical needs of a ventilator dependent quadriplegic. Both the jail and hospital defend their treatment of Magbie.

Source: Washington Post

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