A modest funeral service has been planned for Jerome Murdough, a homeless former Marine who was found dead more than two months ago in an overheated New York City jail cell. (Jason DeCrow/The Associated Press)
NEW YORK — A mentally ill, homeless former Marine who died in an overheated jail cell more than two months ago was a giving and kind person, his relatives said Friday during a modest family funeral.
"You're going to be missed, Big Bro," a tearful Cheryl Warner said at the poignant farewell for 56-year-old Jerome Murdough.
His body lay in a closed, blue-grey casket decorated with purple and white flowers at a Queens funeral home before it was hoisted into a hearse for burial in New Jersey. Displayed photos depicted happier times: a smiling Murdough in a black turtleneck sweater and jaunty hat; the proud Marine posing in his dress uniform.
The medical examiner says more tests are needed to determine exactly how Murdough died alone in a Rikers Island jail cell. But officials have told The Associated Press his cell had overheated to at least 100 degrees, apparently caused by malfunctioning equipment, when he was finally discovered on Feb. 15. He hadn't been checked on for at least four hours, they said, and he didn't open a small window in his cell to let in cool air as other inmates nearby did.
"This has been so painful," said one of his daughters, Victoria Murdough of Philadelphia, who had not seen him for years. "I just want to see justice."
"He was a good, caring guy," she said.
Murdough suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, his family said. He was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication, which officials said could have made him more sensitive to the heat. One of the officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss specifics of the case, said Murdough "basically baked to death."
Murdough's 75-year-old mother, Alma Murdough, wasn't notified of his death until the AP contacted her a month later.
In the wake of the death, which Mayor Bill de Blasio has called "very troubling," the Department of Correction has disciplined the warden in charge of the 2,100-inmate facility where Murdough was housed, as well as the mechanics supervisor and the correction officer assigned to patrol his unit.
Advocates for the mentally ill say Murdough's death epitomizes flaws with how the criminal justice system interacts with people who have regular contact with it. De Blasio's new DOC commissioner, Joseph Ponte, has vowed to reform the city's jails.
Of the roughly 12,000 inmates who make up the nation's second-largest jail system, about 40 percent are mentally ill and a third of those suffer from serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Murdough, whose family said struggled throughout his adult life with mental illness and alcoholism, was sent to Rikers following his Feb. 7 arrest on a misdemeanor trespassing charge for sleeping in an enclosed stairwell of a Harlem public housing building because he couldn't make the $2,500 bail that was set for him, according to court records.
Murdough was discharged as a private first class from the Marine Corps and served from 1975 to 1978 as a field artillery batteryman, according to the Marines Corps. His family said they hadn't been able to reach Marine officials to arrange a military funeral. The Marine Corps didn't respond to a request for comment.