Unable to Press Charges in Jail Death of Mentally Ill Man, Virginia Attorney Indicts Justice System

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It should have been clear that Jamycheal Mitchell was not well. At least, that’s what a recent report from Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney for Portmouth says.

Mitchell died at Hampton Roads Regional Jail in 2015, after being arrested several months prior for stealing $5 worth of snacks from a 7-Eleven. A judge ordered Mitchell, diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, to a state psychiatric hospital following his arrest, but because no beds were open, Mitchell remained at the correctional facility. There, he wasted away mentally and physically.

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Mitchell repeatedly told staff he was depressed and wanted to kill himself, according to the report. He would pace around his cell, naked and covered in his own filth. He sometimes went days without sleep, ripped apart his mattress, and would regularly bang on his cell door, screaming for hours on end. Mitchell refused medication the entirety of his stay, and refused to eat. When he first entered Hampton Roads Regional Jail, the 6-foot-tall Mitchell weighed 180 lbs. When Mitchell was found dead in his cell on August 19, he had dropped to 140 lbs; feces was found smeared on the walls.

A medical examiner described the cause of his death, a “wasting syndrome of unclear etiology.”

For nearly three years, Virginia Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie Morales investigated Mitchell’s case, trying to determine if what happened to Mitchell was criminal negligence. Or, did Mitchell, one of the many mentally ill inmates who disproportionately make up the population of America’s prisons and jails, simply fall through the cracks of a structure never intended to protect him?

On February 20, the Portsmouth Attorney’s office announced its decision to not press charges in Mitchell’s death. Along with the announcement, however, Morales’ office released a 166-page report detailing what had happened in Mitchell’s case—including the numerous obstacles prosecutors encountered in their investigation, and a damning rebuke of Virginia’s incarceration system.

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“The purpose of our 166-page release with a call to action for substantial change is to provide the public with the information we learned, to share about the process we endured to obtain all the information we did, and also to raise our serious concerns about the material information we were unable to obtain and its impact on the investigation,” Morales told The Root via email.

Morales said she was unable to secure interviews with eight crucial witnesses, all of whom were Mitchell’s medical service providers, because her office lacked subpoena power to call them in to testify. The investigation required multiple requests from prosecutors for investigative work from Virginia State Police. And when Morales requested a special grand jury to investigate Mitchell’s death in May 2017—a move that would grant her office subpoena power—a Portsmouth circuit judge denied it.

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The lack of evidence meant her office couldn’t press charges, Morales said. But she felt an imperative to provide the public “an accounting of what happened,” along with recommendations to provide more protections to mentally ill persons who are incarcerated.

Among the issues Morales’ report highlights is that Mitchell was found incompetent to stand trial, yet when he refused medication, jail officials took for granted that he could provide informed consent. Mitchell had already ceased to take his schizophrenia medication several months before his arrest.

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“When interviewed by our office,” the report stated, “no medical employee recalled explaining the concept of informed consent to Mr. Mitchell.”

The issue of informed consent—and the undergirding premise that a man as ill as Mitchell was could provide it—made it harder for Morales’ office to make a case for criminal neglect regarding Mitchell’s care. But it is among the things the attorney highlights in a supplementary letter to the Virginia General Assembly, which focuses on revising the state’s laws regarding severely mentally impaired inmates by laying out a clear definition of “serious mental illness.”

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“Incarcerated persons with serious mental illnesses are often helpless to carry out their own wishes,” Morales wrote. “They sometimes cannot communicate clearly or understand the complexities of medical and mental health decision-making and are extremely vulnerable when consent is at issue.”

Explaining her recommendation to The Root, Morales added, “a clear definition [of “serious mental illness”] would ensure that there is a system-wide understanding of who needs to be protected, [and] what actions need to be taken to ensure the most vulnerable among us are treated with great care from the moment they encounter the system.”

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As the Richmond Times Dispatch reported, the U.S. Department of Justice released a study in December finding that the medical and mental health care inmates at Hampton Roads Regional Jail received was so insufficient it actually violated their constitutional rights:

It found that officials at the facility didn’t fix problems even after becoming aware of them. Virginia’s legislature funded two part-time positions to review all jail deaths to determine if any policies were violated, and the investigator who looks into those cases, Stephen Goff, has made findings.

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Morales’ report also pays particular attention to Naphcare, a private company that provides health services to jails. The Alabama-based health care provider, along with corrections officers, are accused of lax and inconsistent record-keeping in the report, making it difficult to trace whether and how staffers attempted to prevent Mitchell from wasting away.

“The actions and inactions of correctional officers and NaphCare staff potentially contributed to but likely did not directly cause Mr. Mitchell’s weight loss or death,” read the report, before noting, “NaphCare’s conduct with respect to Mr. Mitchell is significantly more culpable than that of any other actor involved in this case.”

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The report singles out NaphCare for not cooperating with the Portsmouth attorneys’ investigation.

“Despite multiple follow-up contacts to attempt to move the process along, our office had to reach out to attorneys for NaphCare on no less than ten separate occasions to reestablish contact after requests to schedule interviews went unanswered for weeks, and in some cases, months,” the report said.

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Naphcare, along with the state of Virginia and the jail, reached a $3 million settlement in January with Mitchell’s family in a federal lawsuit.

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Morales said she wants to make clear that she’s open to pressing charges in Mitchell’s death in the future, should more evidence become available.

“If next week or even 10 years from now, we got the additional 8 witnesses and we found probable cause for a felony, I would absolutely charge,” she said. noting she has a “track record for charging in cold cases” for homicides.

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“I don’t give up on death cases when we lose a member of our community,” Morales said.

In the absence of charges, Morales hopes her report gives some clarity as to how Mitchell’s death happened, with an eye to removing barriers she believes are unfair to the mentally incapacitated. In an op-ed, the Richmond Post-Dispatch applauded Morales for “injecting her office deeply into the investigation of the appalling death of Jamycheal Mitchell.”

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“Jail is not the appropriate place to house the mentally ill, but we recognize that the mentally ill unavoidably spend time in local jails across the Commonwealth,” Morales wrote in her letter to the Virginia Assembly. “The official position of the Commonwealth of Virginia should be to disincentivize jail medical services providers from allowing inmates to fall into the same cracks and loopholes in their systems as Jamycheal Mitchell did.”

When asked directly is she feels the incarceration system was fair to Mitchell, Morales makes it clear that in her opinion, it wasn’t.

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“Procedurally, from the first point of contact with an individual and the criminal justice system, I would like those in power to realize we are often meeting a person at his or her lowest and most vulnerable point and that this person may be unable to understand or voice what his or her own needs are,” Morales said.

Pointing to her office’s exhaustive report and its recommendations, Morales said she hopes more attorneys do the sort of voluntary public accounting of high-profile cases, even when charges can’t be brought.

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“It is important to make clear that a prosecutor’s duty should not always be to focus only on when and whether charges can be filed but sometimes to take a stand on issues of great importance,” she said.

“It was time to provide the public with an accounting of what happened, what the obstacles were to the investigation throughout the process and most importantly, what actions can be taken now and in the future to make sure no one else ever has to experience what Jamycheal did.”

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About the author

Anne Branigin

Staff writer, The Root. Sometimes I blog slow, sometimes I blog quick. Do you have this in coconut?