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Jonathan Magbie update: Time for Accountability

By David Borden, Executive Director,

(Editor: We reported Jonathan Magbie's death in the winter 2004/2005 Razor Wire, pg 22. Dave Borden updates this shameful story with new developments.)

President Reagan met with a young Jonathan Magbie in 1982

The sad case of Jonathan Magbie again gained the public's attention after members of his family in September 2005 filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the District of Columbia. Magbie, a 27-year old paraplegic who was paralyzed from the neck down when hit by a drunk driver at age four, died a year ago Monday after the DC Jail and Greater Southeast Community Hospital failed to provide him with proper medical care.

Magbie was serving a ten-day jail sentence for marijuana possession, marijuana which he used medically to relieve the pain and discomforts he suffered daily.

To say that proper medical care was not provided actually doesn't quite tell it. The truth is that the jail did not allow Magbie the use of his ventilator until it was too late, despite his family's pleadings.

As Capital Area ACLU attorney Art Spitzer, joining with the family's attorneys in bringing the suit, pointed out: no one has been held accountable for Magbie's untimely death -- no one at the jail, no one at the hospital, not Judge Retchin, who was not named in the lawsuit because of law protecting judges from such lawsuits.

An investigation by the District's Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure found that Retchin had acted within the law and cleared her of misconduct. But to be cleared of official misconduct is not the same as to have acted responsibly, much less morally.

The impulse to send Magbie to jail at all was a barbaric one that does not serve justice - the prosecutor in fact had recommended against jail time, which is unusual in DC for that type of a misdemeanor by a first-time offender.

And though Retchin claimed to media she lacked the authority to have ordered Southeast Hospital to keep Magbie rather than bounce him back to jail as they chose, there must have been something she could have managed with sufficient efforts -- pressuring, pleading, something - to avert the unfolding tragedy.

Judges have a lot of pull. If she didn't have the power herself, someone she knew who would take her call certainly had it. While I doubt that anyone involved wanted Jonathan Magbie to die, that's no excuse for the baffling series of events that caused his death. We of the District of Columbia and the United States deserve accountability from our public servants, and Magbie and his family deserve justice.

At the same time, for Magbie not to have died in vain, the discussion must range further. What kind of a system would ever send a person in that condition to jail unnecessarily? Why do we send people to jail for drugs at all -- marijuana, no less? How overcrowded is our criminal justice system now - in significant part from the burden imposed by the drug war - and how many other basic rights of the incarcerated are neglected daily as a result?

How many judges are aware of the significant shortcomings existing in correctional health care when they pronounce their sentences? Or our legislators when they pass their laws? How then can they so lightly consign low-level offenders to the prison or jail environment despite that and all the other known hazards?

And in the face of all the scandals -- the profiling, the 'testi-lying,' the unreliable informants -- should we conclude that there is one standard of ethics for society at large, but a different, lower standard for the criminal justice system?

Financial compensation won't heal the wounds felt by Magbie's family or friends. They'll suffer from those wounds for the rest of their lives. But if justice can bring some semblance of comfort, or only make a needed point, let us see justice done for Jonathan Magbie.

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