“Brushed It Under the Rug”: Investigation Refutes Florida Sheriff’s Story About Jail Detainee’s Death
On September 8, 2022, Carl Harper, Jr. died in Florida’s Lee County Jail, a day after his arrest. A press statement five days later from the office of the county Sheriff (LCSO), Carmine Marceno, and a local NAACP official claimed there were no signs of trauma to the body. But a review of autopsy results reported by the Fort Myers News-Press on July 27, 2023, refuted that finding.
No charges were filed in Harper’s death after LCSO conducted a formal investigation, on which 20th Judicial Circuit State Attorney Amira Fox signed off in May 2023. Harper, 35, was allegedly strung out on MDMA, known as “molly,” when his wife called 911 to say he was threatening to kill his dog, himself and his family. When deputies arrived, they arrested Harper on suspicion of possessing the illegal street drug as well as firearm violations and booked him into the jail. Harper’s booking photo showed no visible injuries on his face.
But during his short time in the jail, Harper’s behavior became erratic, so he was moved to a single-occupancy cell. When he refused to go to court and resisted guards’ efforts to move him, they put Harper in a restraint chair with a spit hood. By the time they tightened the final strap on the chair, he had stopped moving.
When jail medical staff saw he was not breathing, they removed him from the chair and began CPR. Emergency responders arrived and worked on the unresponsive man for 35 minutes before he was declared dead at 3:39 p.m. He had been in the jail for less than 15 hours.
Harper was one of 11 who people died in Lee County jails in 2022, the highest number in years, but none of the deaths was ruled a homicide. Florida’s jails aren’t regulated by the state Department of Corrections, and inspections by the Florida Model Jail Standards Commission had provided a clean bill of health for Lee County’s facilities. Although Sheriff Marceno and local NAACP Pres. James Muwakkil claimed Harper suffered no trauma or blunt force, two forensic pathologists who later reviewed the autopsy results said they got it wrong.
The coroner attributed the death to the drugs in Harper’s system and heart arrythmia, but burst blood vessels under his eyelids and a hemorrhaged neck muscle indicated “intense pressure around the neck and or head” to Joseph Felo, one of the experts, who has conducted more than 4,000 autopsies from his base in Ohio.
“The question is why did he have the fatal arrhythmia at the time he was restrained in the chair and a spit mask was being placed,” agreed Howard Robin, another expert with 40 years of experience based in California.
Harper’s size and position in the restraint chair also could have contributed to his heart failure, the pathologists said. Both agreed the injuries described in the autopsy report showed Harper sustained multiple impacts on both sides of his body. While not necessarily lethal on their own, these injuries could have contributed to his heart failure, they said.
Accounts from guards provided inconsistent details, revealing discrepancies regarding when Harper was handcuffed and how he was behaving. Fellow detainees reported hearing Harper’s screams and the sound of a violent struggle in his cell before his death.
“It sounded like he was being stomped in there,” said one, Travis Fletcher.
Marceno insisted that injuries the coroner found were “minor in nature.” Muwakkil, whose NAACP chapter accepted $5,000 from the Sheriff, said his group believed what they were told, but added that “[w]e have no problem with re-establishing our position.”
However, surveillance video of the incident is no longer available; Fox determined it was exempt from state public-record disclosure laws, so LCSO deleted it after 30 days.
“They just brushed it under the rug,” said Fletcher. “It’s sickening.”
Sources: Fort Myers News Press, WBBH, WINK
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