Sunday, November 16, 2008

Did Cuyahoga County Jailers Kill Sean Levert?

It almost sounds like it could be something from an episode of Law & Order. A member of an R&B group is taken to jail, and dies because his jailers withheld his prescribed medication. And then, the heroic Jack McCoy would go after the jailers for something like negligent homicide, and Jack would win.

Sadly, the only part about that story that is fiction is the Jack McCoy thing. The truth is that the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) jail withheld prescribed anti-anxiety medication from R&B singer Sean Levert, and he died because of it. (Sean also happened to be the son of the Eddie Levert ,who was a member of the group The O’Jays. ) In addition, his jailers seemed indifferent to his pleas for his medication, medical attention, or help, even after they put him in a restraining chair because he could not be controlled. When they finally went to administer some medication to calm him, it was too late – he wasn’t breathing.

Prosecutors cleared the jailers of criminal wrongdoing and the coroner says he died of natural causes, specifically, “from complications of sarcoidosis.” It was also noted, though, that withdrawal from Xanax contributed to his death.

I see it very differently. What I see is a jail that tortured and then killed Sean Levert. In fact, this whole story is so horrific that it makes me ill. I don’t know of anyone in the Cleveland area familiar with the story who isn’t sickened by it and appalled that Cuyahoga County and jail officials seem to think that they did nothing wrong.

The truth of the matter is that they withheld prescribed medication – Xanax - from Levert. What makes matters worse, they didn’t appear to consult with any medical experts before they took this action. It seems that in their “rules,” anxiety isn’t considered a critical condition, and even though Levert had other known medical conditions such as high blood pressure and sarcoidosis they still didn’t see it as critical. Since Levert had been taking Xanax three times a day since November of 2007, his body went through withdrawal when the medication was discontinued cold turkey. This excerpt from a Cleveland Plain Dealer article,
explains what happened:

Levert was sentenced March 24 to 22 months in prison for owing $90,988.96 to three children he fathered before marrying 13 years ago. Deputies brought him from a Cuyahoga County courtroom to the jail in the same building. During the booking process, Levert surrendered a bottle of Xanax that contained 37 pills. He began taking the 2-milligram pills three times a day in November 2007. The prescription for 90 pills was refilled on March 12.

The first few days, Levert and another inmate shared a cell built for one person. Levert was supposed to sleep on a mattress on the floor. He couldn't sleep that way, he said, so for three nights he tried to sleep sitting with his back against a wall, according to the reports.

Levert told his cellmate that he was supposed be taking medication, but it had been taken away from him. At 8:30 a.m. March 27, Levert told a corrections officer that he needed his medication. The officer contacted a nurse who said Levert would have to "wait like everyone else" to see a doctor. He was scheduled to be seen on April 8. (Ohio law gives jails up to two weeks to have new inmates medically evaluated.)

The jail's manager of health care services, Christine Dubber, told investigators after the death that Levert's Xanax was taken because anxiety was not considered an urgent problem, like psychosis, schizophrenia and suicidal thoughts.

The evening of March 29, Levert told his cellmate he heard a woman screaming outside of the jail. He said she was threatening to kill a corrections officer. The cellmate told Levert he couldn't hear a woman screaming.

About 3:30 a.m. March 30, Levert told the cellmate he could hear his wife. She was telling him that their son just fell into the pool. Levert became fearful and pushed a call button to summon a corrections officer. He told the officer that his wife said his son fell into the pool. He wanted to know if his son was OK. A short time later, a corrections officer and a nurse came to Levert's cell. He was crying. They took him to a pod of cells reserved for inmates with mental health problems. He was not given his medication.

At 7:45 p.m. March 30, Levert told a sergeant that he had just seen a bad car crash. The sergeant reported the "hallucinative and delusional behavior" to a nurse who took no action. Levert was pacing in his cell, "acting bizarre" and yelling that his mother and his son were being killed. Jail supervisor Michael McClelland was called to the cell. He allowed Levert to call his mother, but she didn't answer the phone. McClelland wrote in a report that a doctor would see Levert the next day.

At 10:46 p.m., Levert began shouting and pounding on the cell floor "for no reason." McClelland was summoned again. He said Levert sounded like "there were three pitbulls in the room and he was fighting them off." McClelland opened the cell door. Levert "shot into my arms. He didn't put up a fight," McClelland said. They both slid to the floor, where Levert was handcuffed. At 10:52 p.m., McClelland and other officers begin strapping Levert into a restraint chair "to prevent him from injuring himself."

In a videotape of Levert being placed in the chair, he repeatedly shouts, "No, no, no" and strains against the straps, but he doesn't fight the jailers. His breathing is labored. With his eyes squeezed shut, he wails, "No, no, no" for four minutes. At 10:56 p.m., he shouts, "She did it. She did it. She killed my mother. Andy, your mother killed her. She did it. She did it. She's gonna pay. You did it." He stops shouting at 10:57 p.m., seemingly out of breath. The video camera is turned off.

Nurse Jane Lawrence checked to make sure the restraint straps around Levert's wrists, ankles and shoulders weren't too tight. The nurse called the jail's psychiatrist, described Levert's condition and told the doctor that Levert had been taking Xanax. She was told to give Levert an injection that contained three drugs, Benadryl, Ativan and Haldol, to calm him. The nurse told McClelland she wanted to know more about Levert's medical history before she gave him the shot. She called Levert's mother.

The reports show she and McClelland spoke to Levert's mother for five to seven minutes. McClelland assured Martha, "Your son is fine. He's not in any danger of hurting himself or anybody else. Yes, we have him restrained right now because he lost his cool in that cell quite a bit. He just went a little wild. We can't allow him to hurt himself, but he's safe right now and we'll be watching him very closely tonight."

McClelland hung up the phone and went to check on Levert, who he could hear was no longer shouting. It was 11:17 p.m. when he found Levert in a "distressed state," not breathing. He called to the nurse and they put Levert on the floor to begin CPR. Paramedics already entering the jail to treat a woman having difficulty breathing were instead sent to Levert. His heart was beating erratically and stopped beating on the way to St. Vincent Charity Hospital. He arrived at 11:42 p.m. Doctors tried for fifteen minutes to restart his heart. They pronounced him dead at 11:57 p.m. March 30.



I don’t take anti-anxiety medication, but even though I’m no expert I do know that stopping them suddenly can cause major problems for a person. And despite that the Cuyahoga County Jail seems to think anxiety is not critical, I would think that any prescribed medication should ever be withheld from anyone. If they have concerns of the validity of the prescription, then they should check with the prescribing physician. But when someone comes in with a prescription, no jailer has a right to think that they know better when it comes to medicine than a doctor. And despite Levert’s pleas for his medication, his screaming, his hallucination, that they still didn’t see this as a reason to get immediate medical attention, well that’s just plain immoral. If withholding medication, allowing Levert to descend into some sort of inner hell, physically restraining him isn’t torture, then I don’t know what is. The bottom line is that they created a perfect environment for Levert, who already had other medical problems, to die. And that sounds like homicide to me.

You may think something like this can never happen to you or someone close to you, but after you read the account of this crime – and yes, I think it’s a crime – you may think twice about that. Think about it - what happens if you're jailed and someone else decides a medical condition you have isn't deemed critical and you get ill , and they withhold your meds? Be prepared to die if you're in a Cuyahoga County jail.

Levert's widow, Angela Lowe, has a civil lawsuit against Cuyahoga County officials and corrections officers for wrongful death. I hope she wins. And I also hope that the County changes their rules – NOW – before someone else is killed. I also hope a lot of people get fired over this inhumane behavior, because we don’t need people like this in our criminal justice system. Who knows, maybe one day they’ll end up in jail themselves and get a dose of their own "medicine."


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