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US inmate 'baked to death' in jail cell

20 March 2014, 15:01

New York - Investigators are probing how a mentally ill, homeless New York City veteran died last month in a jail cell that city officials say had overheated to at least 37°C apparently because of malfunctioning equipment.

Acting department of correction commissioner Mark Cranston said in a statement on 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.

'He had problems'

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 26°C.

Murdough was arrested on 7 February 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 15 February, 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 misdemeanour 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 22:30 on 14 February, 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 14:30 on 15 February. He was slumped over in his bed and already dead.

- AP

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