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$750,000 Settlement After Mentally Ill Prisoner Dies at Virginia Jail

by Ed Lyon 

Natasha McKenna, a diagnosed schizophrenic, died at age 37 at a jail in Fairfax County, Virginia, where she was being held awaiting transfer to Alexandria on charges of assaulting a peace officer. Alexandria officials had failed to take custody of McKenna three times during her eight-day stay at the Fairfax County jail. 

During preparation for her transfer, McKenna began struggling with deputies after one of them coaxed her into being handcuffed. A crisis team responded, which precipitated a lengthy ordeal with deputies in bio-hazard suits struggling with a nude McKenna in her soiled cell in an attempt to put her in a restraint chair with a spit hood over her face. One prisoner who witnessed the incident said McKenna was making sounds that someone possessed by demons might make. No doubt the four times she was tased by the crisis team contributed to those inhuman noises.

“You promised me you wouldn’t kill me. I didn’t do anything,” McKenna reportedly said while she was being removed from her cell.

McKenna stopped breathing shortly after she was secured in the restraint chair; she was taken to a hospital where she died a few days later, on February 3, 2015. A post mortem revealed her heart had given out as a result of “excited delirium” – a condition that mentally ill and drug-intoxicated persons allegedly experience when heavily stressed or agitated. [See: PLN, April 2016, p.10; Aug. 2015, p.63]. The cause of death was ruled accidental.

Prosecutors decided not to press criminal charges against the deputies after investigating the incident. In the interests of transparency, Sheriff Stacey A. Kincaid released a nearly 45-minute video of the cell extraction, blurring McKenna’s naked body. Her family sued the sheriff and deputies, seeking $15.3 million. They were supported by the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Kincaid and prosecutors continued to defend the deputies involved, concluding that under the totality of the circumstances they had showed “restraint.” The investigation also revealed the fact that McKenna had voluntarily stopped taking her medication some time prior to her arrest. 

As a positive outcome stemming from McKenna’s death, Sheriff Kincade and Fairfax County initiated a diversion program for mentally ill detainees in 2016; the program’s purpose is to divert people with mental health problems into treatment programs rather than jail. Further, staff at the Fairfax County jail no longer use Tasers.

Attorney Harvey Volzer represented McKenna’s family, and the parties reached a settlement in the wrongful death case that was publicly reported in September 2018. Although Volzer and the defendants’ attorneys declined to disclose the settlement amount, court records indicate it was $750,000. The settlement will go to McKenna’s 10-year-old daughter 

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Sources: theguardian.com, washingtonpost.com, praisedc.com