CLAYTON • The lawyer for a woman whose son died of leukemia on March 1 in the St. Louis County Justice Center has filed a lawsuit accusing the jail director of violating the state’s open public records law by refusing to turn over public records concerning jail operations.
And a lawyer for St. Louis County on Friday notified the County Council that the director, Julia Childrey, will not appear at the council’s public hearing scheduled for 4 p.m. on Tuesday to investigate the jail’s policies and procedures in the wake of three inmates’ deaths this year.
It was not clear late Friday how the council would proceed with its inquiry, as Childrey had been slated to be the council’s main witness. Council members had been planning to exclude the public from part of the hearing to discuss sensitive issues with Childrey, although it was not clear how that might work if a large crowd appeared for a proceeding that had been billed as transparent and accountable.
In the lawsuit, attorney Mark Pedroli, of Clayton, asked the court for declaratory and injunctive relief and to find that Childrey must pay civil damages and legal fees for knowingly and purposefully violating the law. The Sunshine Law provides that “all public records of public governmental bodies … be open to the public for inspection and copying” unless they can remain closed under a specific exemption in the law.
Pedroli represents Tashonda Troupe, the mother of Lamar Catchings, 20, who was the third person to die in the county jail this year, a sequence that has resulted in internal and external investigations — and the council’s inquiry.
A report by the St. Louis County Medical Examiner, released on Thursday, found that Catchings died of acute leukemia. Catchings had been held in the jail for 11 months on charges of assault and armed criminal action. Catchings died before he was diagnosed with the illness.
The report said the type of leukemia was probably acute promyelocytic leukemia, or APL. Because of advances in diagnosis and treatment of this disease, this form of leukemia is considered the most curable form of adult leukemia, according to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Cure rates of 90 percent have been reported from centers specializing in APL treatment.
An inmate in an adjacent cell told a reporter in a jailhouse interview that Catchings had been extremely fatigued and sick for about two weeks before his death. And courtroom video obtained by the newspaper through an open record request showed Catchings was taken to a Feb. 22 court date in a wheelchair and held his face in his hands or slumped over for much of his two hours in the courtroom.
Dr. Steven Gore, an oncologist at Yale University, said in an interview on Friday that it was “unconscionable” that someone would die from APL, which he said is cured 97 percent of the time. “It should never happen.”
“I’ve been asked to review medical malpractice cases usually by hospitals where a diagnosis of APL was delayed and the patient ended up dying, and when I’ve done so, I’ve always told the hospital they need to settle,” he said.
“Of course, I have no access to the underlying interaction with the prison medical staff outside of what’s in your story,” he said. “I guess that’s the question: Was he sick and not telling anybody, or was he sick in a way that further investigations should have been warranted?”
In all three recent deaths at the jail, there have been indications that jail staffers failed to act on serious health problems. An inmate told Clayton police that about an hour before Larry “Jay” Reavis was discovered facedown on his cell floor on Jan. 18, a guard shrugged off a report that Reavis was having a seizure, saying, “I don’t know about that.” The medical examiner ruled Reavis died from alcohol abuse.
As disclosed by the Post-Dispatch, the jail’s internal investigation into the death of John M. Shy, 29, on Feb. 23 was focusing on whether jail staffers disabled inmates’ call buttons in the infirmary while Shy, of the Oakville area, writhed in pain for hours, crying and screaming for help, according to a source familiar with the investigations. And investigators have asked why a nurse who peered into Shy’s cell and saw blood pooled and smeared around him told Shy to clean his cell and take a shower rather than helping him.
The source said the jail’s internal investigation also had sought to explain why a jail nurse did not refer Catchings to the infirmary after noting that he had been staggering in a confused state and refusing to eat.
After the medical examiner’s finding of leukemia, Troupe said Thursday that she felt the county had been criminally negligent for her son’s death.
Pedroli sent a 24-point request on April 4 seeking an array of records from the jail. While some of the items involved information about patients or employees, many of the items were the types of records that government make freely available. For example, he asked for the past three years of bids, contracts and invoices between the county and any medical provider, and any records showing the jail’s inmate population over the past year.
Childrey responded that all the records were closed because they were confidential records about personnel or the jail’s security systems and structural plans, or because they were protected from disclosure by other laws she did not specify.
Pedroli’s suit said Childrey’s department had documents that were “clearly not capable of being closed under the Sunshine Law.”
Director won’t appear
In an email to council members, assistant county counselor Maggie Hart-Mahon wrote that because of claims that have been made against the county in the deaths, including allegations of criminal conduct, public statements from Childrey may be “unreasonably prejudicial.”
However, she wrote that Childrey would provide the council with all justice services policies, regulations, protocols and procedures related to the care and treatment of detainees with physical or mental health problems.