Family looks for answers in death of inmate at Fayette County jail

vhoneycutt @herald-leader.comSeptember 5, 2012 

It's been more than three months since Julie Curtsinger's brother died after a medical emergency, and her family still has unanswered questions about what happened that day at the Lexington jail.

Jeffrey McKinney's family says they have pressed jail officials, the police and the coroner for more details about McKinney's death on May 22, but they have been shut down.

"We want to know what happened to my brother," said Curtsinger. "Why was he shackled, why was he handcuffed, why was he pepper sprayed?

"If nothing went wrong, why are they so hush hush? Why can't they tell us what happened?''

McKinney, 37, was serving a 10-day sentence at the Lexington jail for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Curtsinger said her brother had two epileptic seizures the day of his death. He was reportedly placed in restraints by jail staff and was pepper sprayed at some point before he became unresponsive, she said.

Jail officials have said McKinney was taken from the Fayette County Detention Center to University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital about 6:50 p.m. that day after he had a medical emergency. He died about 7:35 p.m.

Investigators have released few details about the case, which police have said is still an open investigation.

Lexington police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said the investigation remains open because officers are waiting for the state medical examiner's report. Roberts said police have found "no sign of foul play."

Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said his office has not ruled on the cause and manner of death.

Ginn said autopsy and toxicology reports are being reviewed. He said his staff reviews reports from a number of sources, including medical reports, before making a determination in a case such as this. Ginn said he hoped "we would come up with a conclusion fairly soon."

"With an investigation, we try to keep the family in the loop as much as we can," he said. "A lot of times ... we are not able to divulge information to the family until we have come up with a conclusion about the case."

Ginn said his office has "about all the reports that we need, but we have to go through all that again to make sure we haven't missed something."

McKinney was arrested in February for driving under the influence of alcohol after weaving on Versailles Road in Lexington, according to Herald-Leader archives. McKinney refused a breath test but failed several field sobriety tests, the archives said. He was released from jail on a $500 bond and was re-booked after pleading guilty May 17.

McKinney had been having seizures since he was 19, when he was diagnosed with epilepsy, his sister said.

Curtsinger said McKinney said the jail was not giving him his anti-seizure medication, and her mother had called the jail and Comprehensive Care officials.

Curtsinger said McKinney was often disoriented and could be rebellious in the first few moments after a seizure. McKinney also had short-term memory and cognitive problems that appeared to come from a head injury suffered during an ATV accident in 2006, Curtsinger said. Before the ATV accident, McKinney was an electrician who ran his own business. He was the father of four children, ages 1½ to 20, his family said.

The week of McKinney's death, Curtsinger says Fayette Deputy Coroner John McCarty told her that her brother had "aspiration of gastric content," which she took to mean choking on his vomit. She says McCarty also told her McKinney had a seizure, had been in restraints and had bruises on his wrists and ankles. She said the deputy coroner told her McKinney had been pepper sprayed.

Curtsinger said she had not heard from the coroner's office until she went there Tuesday and McCarty told her he expected to sign the death certificate, which could provide more details about the death, within the next several days.

Ginn on Tuesday declined to comment about what Curtsinger says she was told by the deputy coroner. Ginn said it was customary for his staff to provide information to families shortly after deaths. Anything his staff tells a family member before ruling on the cause and manner of a death is preliminary, he said.

Ginn said his staff will talk to the family before his office releases information to the public about McKinney's death.

Still, McKinney's family doesn't like being in the dark.

"Why wasn't their medical staff there to take care of my son?" said McKinney's father, Robert McKinney. "He went in to serve 10 days. He gave them his life."

Curtsinger said the family has talked to an attorney about the case, but they have not filed a lawsuit.

There have been at least two other deaths of inmates at the jail since 2010.

Robert McKinney said he wants state laws changed to better address the needs of inmates who enter jails with medical conditions.

"I can't sleep ... I cry every day," Robert McKinney said. ''We can't get closure. We can't start a healing process."

Jeffrey McKinney's minister, Hershael W. York, senior pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, said he is among those concerned about the lack of information.

"If this death happened anywhere outside of the Fayette County Detention Center, we could know the names of the people directly involved," York said in an email. "... I am baffled that more than three months after Jeff's death, the family still cannot ... get answers about the circumstances of his death ... and have not had anyone in a position of responsibility simply look them in the eyes and express condolences for their loss."

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409.Twitter: @vhspears.

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