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October 9, 2004 - The Washington Post (DC)

Another Unnecessary Death In D.C.

By Colbert I. King

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Too bad that 27-year-old Jonathan Magbie, at this late stage, didn't know the right people. If he did, he might still be alive today. But Magbie had no ties to this town's rich, famous or influential. As his life drew to a close, everyone who wanted to could exercise veto power over him. It had been that way ever since he was hit by a car at age 4 and left paralyzed from the chin down.

Magbie's story was told a week ago in The Post by reporter Henri Cauvin. It was a sad tale about a quadriplegic, unable to breathe on his own since childhood (and mobile only with the help of a chin-operated, motorized wheelchair), who was arrested, convicted and sent to the city's jail for 10 days for marijuana possession.

His five days in custody of the D.C. Department of Corrections -- interrupted by a one-night stay at Greater Southeast Community Hospital -- ended in death. Questions concerning the quality of care provided by the hospital and the Corrections Department to Magbie are still unanswered. Unless his mother, Mary Scott, and his lawyer kick up a fuss, the late Magbie will be another closed chapter in the city's long and sickening history of dumping on the least among us.

The last five days of Magbie's life, as pieced together this week through e-mail exchanges and interviews conducted with court and corrections officials, paint a picture of a kind of official treatment that would never be accorded a senator's son or someone with friends in city hall.

Let's begin with the office of Judge Judith Retchin. On Friday, Sept. 17, three days before Magbie appeared in court for sentencing, Retchin directed her law clerk to check with the person in the chief judge's office who serves as a liaison with the D.C. Corrections Department to determine whether the department would be able to accommodate a "paralyzed, wheelchair-bound defendant." The clerk was told that the jail could handle such an inmate.

But did the clerk discuss Magbie's reliance on a ventilator? The court's e-mail response: "No. The law clerk did not inquire about a ventilator. Mr. Magbie had never used a ventilator in the courtroom during any of his court appearances."

A serious omission indeed. Corrections Department Director Odie Washington told me that if his department had known Magbie needed a ventilator, it would have advised the court that on-site ventilator care was not available in corrections facilities. Contrary to Retchin's announcement at the time of Magbie's sentencing, the Corrections Department could not attend to his needs.

Let's consider other matters that have turned up since The Post's story.

The article stated that what happened between Magbie's arrival at the jail on Sept. 20 at 2 p.m. and his being taken to the hospital at 9 p.m. was not explained.

An Oct. 7 e-mail response from the Corrections Department to my inquiry indicated that Magbie went through medical and mental health processing through the afternoon of Sept. 20 and was awaiting transfer from the jail to the jail's annex, the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), when he started having difficulty breathing at 9 p.m. A registered nurse on duty asked if he used oxygen at home and Magbie stated that he did not use oxygen at home but he needs continuous breathing ventilator treatment at night. "This is the first time that [the Corrections Department] learns of Mr. Magbie's need for a ventilator," the e-mail stated.

The nurse told CTF doctors, and after a second medical evaluation and finding that Magbie needed acute medical care, they decided at 9:15 p.m. to transport him as an emergency patient to Greater Southeast Community Hospital.

The Post story reported that a court official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Greater Southeast discharged Magbie back to the Corrections Department the following day, and when a senior CTF doctor who believed Magbie belonged in a hospital asked Greater Southeast to take him back, the hospital refused.

"That is absolutely not true," Joan Phillips, chief executive officer of Greater Southeast, told me on Thursday. "They did not ask us to take the patient back."

Bill Meeks, public information officer for the Corrections Department, concurred. No Corrections Department medical personnel asked the hospital to re-admit Magbie, he said.

So where did that story about Greater Southeast's refusal come from? Court spokeswoman Leah Gurowitz said she and those she spoke with didn't know.

Another query: Why did the Corrections Department retain custody of a ventilator-dependent inmate for three nights when it knew that neither the jail nor the CTF provided on-site ventilator care?

"That was not our decision," said corrections chief Washington when I asked him for an explanation. "We provided the care directed to us by Greater Southeast Community Hospital," he said, and cited his department's e-mail to me: "Magbie was returned to the CTF from Greater Southeast with a patient discharge form with instructions for nasal oxygen at night as needed. No ventilator was ordered."

But does Washington's finger-pointing hold up?

According to a Superior Court e-mail reply, on Sept. 21 -- the day after Magbie's sentencing and overnight stay in the hospital -- a CTF doctor contacted Judge Retchin's law clerk, informed her that Magbie needed a ventilator when he slept and inquired about procedures to transfer him to Greater Southeast. The clerk consulted with the chief judge's liaison to corrections and was told that the doctor should speak with the Corrections Department's medical administrator, because the court cannot direct medical placements.

Washington acknowledged that a CTF physician, "acting on his own," discussed the ventilator situation with Magbie's attorney and that the two reached an agreement to have Magbie's mother bring her son's ventilator to the CTF on the morning of Sept. 24. Unfortunately, by the time she arrived, at approximately 10 a.m., her son, having difficulty breathing, had already been taken to Greater Southeast, where he later died.

Court, corrections and hospital bureaucrats have now scurried to their bunkers.

Jonathan Magbie wasn't always so little thought of.

Twenty-two years ago this month, a chipper 5-year old Jonathan "John-John" Magbie was invited to take part in a White House ceremony commemorating National Respiratory Therapy Week. He had suffered the paralyzing injury a year earlier and was breathing with the help of a mechanical device inserted in his neck and speaking through a battery-powered device that he operated with a flick of his tongue.

On the way to the White House, "John-John" told his doctor, Dean Sterling, director of respiratory care services at Children's Hospital, and nurse Nancy Rivers that he wanted to ask President Reagan something. After the ceremony, and as Reagan was saying hello to "John-John," the doctor said:

" 'John-John,' you had something you wanted to ask the president, didn't you?"

"Yes," said the boy. "What are you going to be for Halloween?"

Startled, the president replied: "I think I'll just keep being me. That's been tough enough recently" [Bob Levey's Washington, Oct. 29, 1982].

This Halloween, both are gone.

(For the record: I have never met Judge Retchin. I did, however -- along with other family and friends -- write a letter of recommendation last year to the judge in behalf of a jailed relative who was being sentenced on a felony conviction. At sentencing, Retchin credited him with time served in jail, ordered him into drug treatment and called for a subsequent assignment to a halfway house. He is now on probation and employed. As noted in an earlier column, the King family tree includes members who have attended Penn State and the state pen.)

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