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Death of former Marine in overheated cell probed

Mar. 20, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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NEW YORK — Investigators are probing how a mentally ill, homeless New York City veteran died last month in a jail cell that city officials told The Associated Press had overheated to at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37 Celsius), apparently because of malfunctioning equipment.

Acting Department of Correction Commissioner Mark Cranston said in a statement Wednesday that investigators were looking at the circumstances surrounding Jerome Murdough’s “unfortunate death.”

“While we cannot comment on the facts surrounding his death while the investigation is underway, preliminary information suggests there were unusually high temperatures in Mr. Murdough’s cell,” he said.

Four city officials told the AP that the 56-year-old former Marine was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication, which may have made him more vulnerable to heat. He also apparently did not open a small vent in his cell, as other inmates did, to let in cool air.

“He basically baked to death,” said one of the officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to discuss specifics of the case.

The medical examiner’s office said an autopsy was inconclusive and that more tests were needed to determine Murdough’s exact cause of death. But the officials, all with detailed knowledge of the case, say initial indications from the autopsy and investigation point to extreme dehydration or heat stroke.

The department said it had addressed two contributing factors an outside consultant identified as causing the excess heat. It also said temperature checks immediately after the death revealed that several cells nearby were over 80 degrees Fahrenheit (26 Celsius).

Murdough was arrested Feb. 7 on a misdemeanor trespassing charge for sleeping in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a public housing building in Harlem and sent to Rikers after being unable to post a $2,500 bail, court records show. He was found dead in his cell in a special unit for inmates with mental illnesses a week later, in the early hours of Feb. 15, the officials said.

Advocates for mentally ill inmates say Murdough’s death represents the failure of the city’s justice system on almost every level: by arresting him instead of finding him help, by setting bail at a prohibitive $2,500 and by not supervising him closely in what is supposed to be a special observation unit for inmates with mental illnesses.

“He was a very lovely, caring guy,” said Murdough’s 75-year-old mother, Alma Murdough, adding that her son had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia and that she had not seen him in about three years.

“He had beer problems. Drinking beer. That was his downfall. Other than that, he was a very nice guy. He’d give you the shirt off his back.”

Alma Murdough said she hadn’t learned of her son’s death until the AP contacted her last week, nearly a month after he died. His public defender was told of the death three days after the inmate was found, the DOC said.

Family members say Murdough grew up in Queens and joined the Marine Corps right out of high school, doing at least one stint in Okinawa, Japan.

When he returned from the service, his family said, both his mental illness and thirst for alcohol became more pronounced, and he would often disappear for months at a time, finding warmth in hospitals, shelters and on the streets.

“When he wanted to venture off, we let him, we allowed him to come and go,” recalled his sister, Cheryl Warner. “He always came back.”

Murdough’s criminal record included 11 misdemeanor convictions for trespassing, drinking in public and minor drug charges, said Ivan Vogel, a public defender who represented him at his arraignment on the trespassing charge.

According to the city officials, Murdough was locked alone into his cinderblock cell at about 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 14, a week after his arrest. Because he was in the mental-observation unit, he was supposed to be checked every 15 minutes as part of suicide watch, they said. But Murdough was not discovered until four hours later, at about 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 15. He was slumped over in his bed and already dead.

When Murdough was found and his cell opened, his internal body temperature and the temperature in the cell were at least 100 degrees. Those temperatures could have been higher before he was discovered because the cell had been closed for several hours, the officials said.

Dr. Susi Vassallo, an associate professor at New York University School of Medicine and a national expert on heat-related deaths who monitors heat conditions at Rikers Island, said psychotropic medications can impair the body’s ability to cool itself by sweating, making it retain more heat than it should.

Exposure to intense heat for a couple of hours by someone on such medications could be fatal, she said.

Wanda Mehala, another of Murdough’s sisters, said the family wants an explanation.

“We want justice for what was done,” she said. “He wasn’t just some old homeless person on the street. He was loved. He had a life. He had a family. He had feelings.”

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