Jonathan Magbie, a 27-year-old Mitchellville man, was sent to jail in the District last week for 10 days for marijuana possession. He never made it home.
Paralyzed as a child and unable to even breathe on his own, Magbie died last Friday after being shuttled between the D.C. jail complex and Greater Southeast Community Hospital.
At the center of the many questions surrounding his death is whether D.C. Superior Court and the D.C. Department of Corrections did enough to ensure adequate care for the quadriplegic inmate.
An investigation is underway, but that is little solace to his family, which marched on the courthouse this week with signs accusing the judge of killing Magbie.
"I'm not saying that he shouldn't have been punished, because he did smoke the marijuana," his mother, Mary Scott, said yesterday, a day after burying her son. "I just don't think it should have cost him his life."
By the standards of D.C. Superior Court, the 10-day sentence rendered by Judge Judith E. Retchin was unusually punitive for a first-time offender such as Magbie. Along with his defense attorney, Boniface Cobbina, a pre-sentence report had recommended probation, and the U.S. attorney's office had not objected.
But Retchin rejected probation alone. A former federal prosecutor who became a Superior Court judge in 1992, Retchin is known to dispense stiff sentences.
Police, she pointed out, found a gun and cocaine in the vehicle in which Magbie was stopped in April 2003. And, despite pleading guilty to the marijuana charge, Magbie told pre-sentence investigators that he would continue using the drug, which he said made him feel better.
"Mr. Magbie, I'm not giving you straight probation," the judge said, according to a transcript of the Sept. 20 proceedings. "Although you did not plead guilty to having this gun, it is just unacceptable to be riding around in a car with a loaded gun in this city."
Details about Magbie's death were first reported by WJLA-TV (Channel 7). Magbie was struck by a drunk driver when he was 4 years old; he was paralyzed from the neck down, and his growth was stunted. Barely five feet tall and 120 pounds, he moved around on a motorized wheelchair that he operated with his chin.
For most everything else, from scratching an itch on his head to flushing his lungs of accumulated fluid, he had to rely on others. Along with his family, he had nursing care 20 hours a day.
"Jonathan was totally dependent," his mother said. "He couldn't do anything for himself."
Asked how her son was able to inhale marijuana, Scott said only that "he learned to do a lot of things."
Ahead of Magbie's sentencing, a staff member in Retchin's chambers contacted the office of Chief Judge Rufus G. King III to find out whether the D.C. Corrections Department would be able to house a paralyzed person in a wheelchair. The answer from the chief judge's office, which is the liaison with Corrections, was yes.
Leah Gurowitz, a court spokeswoman, said yesterday that the full extent of Magbie's paralysis was inadvertently not relayed to the chief judge's office.
In a statement yesterday, Retchin said she was led to believe "that Mr. Magbie's medical needs could be met; this was such an unintended tragedy. I would like to convey my deepest sympathy to Mr. Magbie's family."
Even the Correctional Treatment Facility, a jail annex that houses many inmates with medical or security needs, would not have been able to readily care for a prisoner such as Magbie, Philip Fornaci, executive director of the D.C. Prisoners' Legal Services Project, said yesterday.
"I certainly would not say they killed him or any conclusion like that," Fornaci said. "But it certainly seems likely that he wouldn't have died if he hadn't gone to jail."
The initial medical evaluation of Magbie after his arrival at the D.C. jail on Sept. 20 found him in need of "acute medical attention," according to the Corrections Department. Within hours, Magbie was moved to Greater Southeast Community Hospital.
The nature of the medical problem was not specified in a chronology issued by the Corrections Department, which declined to make officials available to comment on the specifics of the case.
The timeline shows that Magbie arrived at the jail at 2 p.m. and that he was taken to the hospital at 9:40 p.m. What happened in between is not explained.
The next day, Magbie was discharged and placed in the Correctional Treatment Facility, the jail annex that is operated by Corrections Corporation of America under a contract with the city. But almost from the moment Magbie arrived there, a senior doctor was concerned that Magbie might not receive the care he needed, according to his mother and a court official.
The court official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the doctor believed that Magbie belonged at the hospital and pressed Greater Southeast, which handles inmate hospitalizations, to take him back. But the hospital rebuffed the request, the official said.
Hoping to change the hospital's mind, the physician asked Retchin to issue a court order, the official said. But the judge declined, saying she lacked the authority to issue any such order.
The hospital said in a statement that it could not comment because of federal privacy regulations. It said that it provides "top-quality" care.
Apparently resigned to having him stay on at the jail annex, the medical staff decided after a couple of days of back-and-forth with Magbie's mother and attorney to allow Magbie's mother to bring his ventilator.
Told to bring the device down Friday morning, she did, showing up about 10 a.m. A half-hour earlier, she would later learn, her son had been taken by ambulance back to Greater Southeast.
That night, she received a call from a warden telling her that her son was dead.