Release of jail records provides details in Fayette inmate's struggle, death

Seizure, struggle, restraints involved

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comNovember 18, 2012 

Julie Curtsinger and her father, Robert McKinney, held a photo of their brother and son, Jeffrey McKinney, who died while he was an inmate in the Fayette County Detention Center.

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One thing is clear: It was one hour and 16 minutes from the time assistance was requested for Fayette County jail inmate Jeffrey McKinney to the time he was pronounced dead at University of Kentucky Chandler Hospital on May 22.

That much was revealed in records obtained by the Herald-Leader from the Fayette County jail and police under the Kentucky Open Records Law. What remains unclear, however, is whether McKinney, 37, was having a seizure when corrections officers viewed him as combative and responded forcefully, or whether the behavior came after a seizure. In addition, there are conflicting reports about whether pepper spray was sprayed directly into a hood that had been placed over McKinney's head.

Jail reports and memos provided the following account:

McKinney, who had epilepsy, bit his tongue during a seizure and spit blood on a jail nurse. A corrections officer reported he was "unaware" whether McKinney's spitting was intentional. A specially designed hood was retrieved to keep McKinney from spitting on anyone else.

McKinney would struggle some more, then call for help. He was handcuffed and shackled in a restraint chair, pressure points were applied, and pepper spray was sprayed in his face to calm him down. Then he was given a shot for anxiety.

Moments later, McKinney stopped moving. Corrections officers removed the spit hood and discovered he had vomited and wasn't breathing.

In September, Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn ruled the death an accident that occurred when McKinney was being subdued by corrections officers. An autopsy report showed McKinney died from asphyxiation when he choked on his vomit.

McKinney's family, who filed a wrongful-death lawsuit last week against corrections officers and employees of the jail's health care vendor, Corizon, has sought answers for months about McKinney's death. His family talked to the Herald-Leader previously but declined recent requests to be interviewed.

Documents were released to the Herald-Leader because the investigation has been closed.

An internal police investigative report dated Oct. 29 said, "During the course of this investigation there has been no criminal activity suspected and no criminal charges filed."

The investigative report also said police were unable to collect much evidence about McKinney's death.

"Jail policy requires that blood be cleaned up after any situation is resolved, and as such, the area where Mr. McKinney fought with staff no longer had much evidence," the report said.

Sgt. Jennifer Taylor, the jail spokeswoman, deferred to city spokeswoman Susan Straub to comment on the case.

Straub said no corrections officers were disciplined or admonished as a result of McKinney's death. Additionally, no policies were changed, although after releasing his findings Ginn suggested to the Herald-Leader that policies be reviewed.

"We have a training policy based on procedures that meet objective, well-established state standards," Straub said. "The coroner may be unaware of the ongoing training we require for jail employees."

The police investigation uncovered no criminal wrongdoing, she said. "Corrections officials have reviewed the extensive documentation of the incident and have confirmed that appropriate procedures were followed."

McKinney was being held at the jail to serve a 12-day sentence for driving under the influence of alcohol.

According to court documents, he was arrested in February after weaving on Versailles Road and pulling over, even though a police officer behind him had not turned on emergency lights. McKinney refused a breath test but failed several field sobriety tests. He was released from jail on a $500 bond and was rebooked after pleading guilty May 17. He entered jail that day.

From May 17 to 21, McKinney was observed in a jail medical unit because he needed detoxification. Records do not show whether the problem was drugs or alcohol. On May 21, he was moved to a general population living area.

According to the records, at 12:49 p.m. the next day McKinney suffered a seizure while in the shower. A corrections officer reported that he "secured" McKinney's arms and head to "prevent further injury."

In addition to epilepsy, McKinney had short-term memory and cognitive problems that appeared to come from a head injury from an ATV accident in 2006, his sister Julie Curtsinger told the Herald-Leader in September.

McKinney was moved to a medical unit where he could be monitored. At 6:19 p.m., the medical unit called a Code 100, which means an inmate needs medical assistance. McKinney was lying on the floor, with nurses trying to attend to him. He was swinging his arms, trying to hit staff. His aggression and size, at 5-foot-9 and 225 pounds, were making him difficult to control, according to corrections officers' reports.

One officer reported that he made sure McKinney's airways were clear before he put on the spit hood. McKinney continued to "actively resist staff" and passively resist by making his body dead weight, a corrections officer said in a report.

At 6:23 p.m., a Signal 7, or an emergency code, was called.

Corrections officials asked the medical staff to leave a cell where they had taken McKinney. At that point, an officer sprayed pepper spray into McKinney's eyes, handcuffed him and shackled him. McKinney began shaking his head back and forth and saying OK, the records show. He was placed in a restraint chair so the nursing staff could administer an injection of the drug Ativan, which is used for treating anxiety.

When McKinney resisted, one officer delivered a knee strike and applied pressure to McKinney's clavicle.

Officers removed the spit hood to decontaminate the pepper spray from McKinney's eyes, brought him to his feet and were about to lay him on a mat when they realized he was having respiratory distress. An ambulance was called at 6:50 p.m., and corrections officers began cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

McKinney was taken to UK Chandler Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 7:35 p.m.

According to jail records, a video, which is 27 minutes and 43 seconds long, exists of McKinney struggling with corrections officers. A second segment, 17 minutes and 57 seconds long, documents what happened when corrections officers realized that McKinney was unresponsive. According to jail reports, videos might not have captured everything that happened in the minutes before McKinney died.

The Herald-Leader has requested from the city copies of the videos, but the city, in a letter dated Nov. 8, delayed the release of the videos because "the requested records contain information and materials which may be subject to a privacy interest."

Included in the jail records was a written statement by inmate Gary Warner, who said he saw more than a dozen officers trying to subdue McKinney as he was having a seizure.

"I knew that the man was dead," Warner was quoted in the report. "I could see it in the faces of the officers and nurses. I can't say with words how troubled I am from witnessing this. It makes me want to cry."

In response to the release of the records, Mayor Jim Gray said, "I want to express my sympathy to Mr. McKinney's family. Interventions requiring physical constraint, especially medical interventions, are often disturbing to those of us who have little training or experience with them. Although this was a medical issue, Mr. McKinney was displaying forceful behavior toward those trying to help him. Our corrections officers are responsible for inmate safety, but also for the safety of medical personnel and for their own safety."

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

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