It was a cold February night, and Jerome Murdough had huddled inside an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a Harlem public housing project to get warm when he was arrested for trespassing.
While in custody at New York City’s Rikers Island jail, he was found dead in his cell, and officials are now claiming that malfunctioning equipment caused the overheating of the enclosed space to at least 100 degrees, the Associated Press reports.
Murdough, who served in the Marines, was 56, homeless and taking anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication, which may have sealed his fate. According to reports, the medication could have made him more susceptible to the heat, and he apparently never opened the small vent in his cell to allow cooler air to come in.
"He basically baked to death," one official, who insisted on remaining anonymous because of the conditions of the case, told AP.
Although medical examiners are still running tests to confirm the exact cause of death, officials with details of the case said that evidence points to extreme dehydration or heat stroke, AP notes.
The case has struck a chord among advocates for mentally ill prisoners in New York, who are slamming the criminal-justice system for arresting Murdough instead of getting him help and then for not supervising him closely enough—particularly since he was in a special observation unit for the mentally ill.
Officials say that Murdough had been in custory for about a week when he was locked in a cell, alone, at about 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 14. He was supposed to be checked every 15 minutes because he was on suicide watch, but his body was not discovered until 2:30 a.m., slumped over his bed. His internal body temperature was at least 100 degrees. It could have been even higher earlier, since the cell had been closed for several hours.
Murdough’s family is now searching for answers. Relatives say that when he returned from his military service—he joined right after high school—his drinking and mental problems became worse and he would often disappear for months, seeking warmth in hospitals and shelters.
"When he wanted to venture off, we let him; we allowed him to come and go," his sister Cheryl Warner told AP. "He always came back."
Another sister, Wanda Mehala, told AP, "We want justice for what was done. 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."
An attorney for the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, Jennifer J. Parish, added that Murdough was failed by the system. "So Mr. Murdough violated the trespass law. So he suffered the consequences by going to jail," Parish said. "But the jail system committed more serious harm to him. And the question is, will they ever be held responsible?"
Read more at the Associated Press.