The Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office is combing back through its jail inmate records after the Chattanooga Times Free Press identified two cases in which an inmate died and the fatality was not included in a list of 2022 deaths.
Tennessee Code 38-10-102 requires local law enforcement agencies to report to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation “all law enforcement-related deaths” — including those in custody — and to make the information available to the public.
“Our intent is and has always been to be transparent and in compliance with TCA 38-10-102,” J. Matt Lea, the Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said in an email to the Times Free Press.
In January, the Times Free Press requested from the department a list of in-custody deaths between 2019 and 2022 — after a 2022 report from the U.S. Department of Justice found that nearly 1,000 in-custody deaths had gone unreported in prisons and jails across the U.S.
The Hamilton County list showed an increasing number of jail deaths over the past four years — one death in 2019, two in 2020, three in 2021 and four in 2022. Among the 10 deaths, one was listed as a homicide, two as accidents, six as natural causes and one awaiting autopsy.
The Times Free Press then learned of at least two deaths that were not on the list:
— Donald Fitsgerald, who died at Parkridge Hospital of a ruptured stomach ulcer in June 2022, was left off the list because his case was still categorized as a miscellaneous call but should have been classified as a death, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
— Brandon Kyle Cornett, who was pronounced dead April 2022 at Erlanger hospital after suffering a blood clot to the lung, was left off the list by human error, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
Although both had been taken to the hospital, they remained in custody and should have been included, Lea said.
Including those two deaths, the corrected accounting from the Sheriff’s Office reports as many in-custody deaths in 2022 as the previous three years combined — and more may be found as the Sheriff’s Office reviews its records.
“We’re going to also pull the records that we have at the jail and investigative services,” Lea said via telephone. “We will make sure this time we don’t miss any.”
In Tennessee, “jails and prisons are responsible for submitting to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation deaths which occurred in their facility,” according to a 2021 law enforcement-related deaths report from the TBI.
The report described law enforcement-related deaths as “the death of an individual in custody, whether in prison, in jail or otherwise in the custody of law enforcement” including any people being detained or in the process of being detained by an officer of the law.
Fitsgerald’s death was not only left off the list provided to the Times Free Press, but the Sheriff’s Office also failed to report it to the state, Lea said, an omission that was corrected after the newspaper inquired.
SIX DAYS LEFT
On June 12, Donald Fitsgerald — who was six days away from completing a 30-day sentence — was taken to Parkridge Hospital on McCallie Avenue from the Silverdale Detention Center after he “complained all morning of abdominal pain then went unresponsive,” according to a Hamilton County Medical Examiner’s report.
Fitsgerald, according to the report, was then transported from McCallie Avenue to Parkridge North on Lee Highway, where he “suffered another cardiac arrest,” before being pronounced dead around 1 p.m., according to the report.
He was due to be released from Silverdale on June 18, according to Brian Bush, general counsel for the Sheriff’s Office.
Fitsgerald, who had previous citations for panhandling, was arrested June 2 by Chattanooga police after responding Officer Skyler Long answered a call of a traffic offense on the Shallowford Road exit from Interstate 75, according to a sworn affidavit from the department.
Long found Fitsgerald panhandling while interfering with traffic and in possession of drug paraphernalia near the exit, according to the affidavit.
A Hamilton County medical examiner’s report listed Fitsgerald’s death as a result of a ruptured stomach ulcer.
Fitsgerald initially did not appear on the list of in-custody deaths for 2022.
After further inquiry from the Times Free Press on Fitsgerald’s death, the Sheriff’s Office said Fitsgerald’s case was not included in the list because the incident had not been reclassified in the computer system upon his death.
The newspaper’s inquiry “revealed something to us that we didn’t realize before,” Bush said via telephone, noting the jail’s computer system did not include the word “death” in its report on what happened to Fitsgerald that day.
“Otherwise, our analyst would have caught that and included him in the report,” Bush said.
“They have to go report by report and actually read through it,” Lea chimed in, adding that the Sheriff’s Office is working on hiring more people.
“We’re getting better and our technology is getting better so that we can provide information quicker,” Lea said. “In a situation where the analysts went report by report … it just takes time, and sometimes you miss one.”
When an incarcerated person is taken to any area hospital from Silverdale, the incident is labeled as a “miscellaneous report” because the staff has no way of telling what the end result will be, according to Bush.
“We classify all of these in-custody deaths, originally (as miscellaneous), because if they die ultimately in the hospital, we don’t know how they’re going to be classified ultimately,” Bush said. “It was completely inadvertent. Again, they do excellent work, but occasionally they missed some things, and they missed one here.”
When asked by the Times Free Press if a review will be done to see how many in-custody deaths have been miscategorized and could have been missed, Bush said the staff is working on it.
“The sheriff in this new administration is very data focused,” Bush said. “So in an instance like this, it may be we have a code that says an inmate is in critical condition, so that might flag for an analyst in the future, to maybe (follow up), what happened ultimately to this person? How was their ultimate outcome?”
Brandon Kyle Cornett, 46, was arrested March 17 after Chattanooga police responded to a solo vehicle accident in the 4100 block of Delashmitt Road in Red Bank.
Cornett, a Red Bank resident and Iowa native, according to his obituary, told officers he had neuropathy of the feet, a condition that can cause extreme pain and swelling of the feet, and was on a “plethora of medications,” according to a sworn affidavit from the department.
Cornett, who in 2011 had his license suspended after entering a guilty plea for driving under the influence, told officers some of his medications included the opioid oxycodone and the antidepressant escitalopram and had taken his medications three hours before driving, according to the affidavit.
Officer Jacob Simpson arrested Cornett under “suspicion of DUI” and transported him to Silverdale.
On April 25, Cornett arrived at Erlanger East hospital on Gunbarrel Road via ambulance from Silverdale around 2 p.m. and was pronounced dead shortly after, according to a Hamilton County Medical Examiner report.
Cornett’s cause of death was listed as blot clots to the lung and an enlarged heart, according to the medical examiner’s report.
Cornett’s death, while not included in the January in-custody death list provided to the Times Free Press from the Sheriff’s Office, was kept in jailhouse records, according to Lea, and was properly reported to the state.
“He was on our list of in-custody deaths that we keep at accreditation in the jail,” Lea said. “But somehow he was inadvertently missed when our crime analyst went through and pulled those reports.”
A third discrepancy in the January list provided to the Times Free Press by the Sheriff’s Office was the inclusion of Timothy Burt, who had been previously reported by Sheriff’s Office officials as having been no longer in custody at the time of his death.
Burt, of Fort Payne, Alabama, was arrested July 5 after allegedly stealing an ambulance from Erlanger hospital and later crashing it, according to a sworn affidavit from the Sheriff’s Office seeking Burt’s arrest.
Burt, 66, was taken to Parkridge Hospital on McCallie Avenue from Silverdale, for a “medical related issue,” according to Lea. Burt died of a heart attack on Aug. 27, according to the Hamilton County medical examiner.
Two days later, according to a signed court order, Burt was released from Hamilton County custody on his own recognizance — a release that Lea confirmed in a Sept. 2 email to the Times Free Press.
Asked more recently about how Burt could have been released from county custody two days after dying, he said he had been misinformed.
“I had been advised that an OR (own recognizance) bond had been issued for him,” Lea said. “In reality, that was misinformation, because the OR bond was in the process of being issued, it just didn’t get issued until Monday the 29th, and he died on Saturday. So he died in our custody.”
Lea stressed the Sheriff’s office is being transparent, and it was a case of miscommunication.
“Nothing we tried to hide, we were under the impression, at the time of his death, he had already been OR’d,” Lea said.
Some inmates do get released from custody when they are taken to the hospital, and their subsequent deaths are not counted on the official accountings of deaths in custody — even though their families consider the jail responsible in their deaths.
Two such cases have been the subject of recent protests and community forums as the families grieve.
Abraham Jackson had been at Silverdale since March of last year and was rushed to Erlanger in September after weeks of feeling ill, according to daughters Ashley Jackson and Marshon Grissom.
“They released him to Erlanger,” Grissom said at a community meeting in January. “They did all these types of tests, and they couldn’t tell me what was wrong and finally came up with E. coli.”
Inmate DaQuarrius Brown, who was HIV positive and had asthma, required daily medication for both conditions. He was taken to the hospital three months into serving his sentence at Silverdale for burglary and assault last year. Medical records showed Brown was not receiving his medication at the jail.
“No one came to give him medication, and we put so many requests in,” his brother, Daryl Thomas Jr., told the Times Free Press last year.
During his hospitalization, DaQuarrius Brown was released from Silverdale, on his own recognizance, on April 22, Lea said.
DaQuarrius Brown died on May 26.
Following the inquiries of the Times Free Press and the discovery of the deaths overlooked, the Sheriff’s Office said officials are going to review their records and release a new list of in-custody deaths to ensure it is in full compliance with state law.
“I’ve talked with the sheriff. I’ve talked with our general counsel. We are going to completely redo that list, we’re going to pull it all again,” Lea said, adding that while Cornett’s death had been reported to the state, Fitsgerald’s was not.
“In order to rectify the issue, his (Fitsgerald) in-custody death was reported this morning,” Lea said in an email on Tuesday.
“Theoretically, there should be a list, and from now on, there will be a comprehensive list,” Lea said Tuesday in a followup phone call to the email. “We keep records, but we know we can do a better job.”
SILVERDALE DETENTION CENTER DEATHS
While the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office maintains that every person who walks through the detention facility’s doors receives a medical screening, with medical staff available to provide care 24 hours a day, several Chattanooga families have spoken out about the deaths of their loved ones while at Silverdale, claiming medical neglect has been a contributor to the loss. In 2022, the Times Free Press reported on three in-custody deaths in addition to Timothy Burt’s:
— Carol Rene White, 53, died May 16 at Silverdale while serving a 45-day sentence after pleading guilty to two DUIs. Her death was ruled an accidental “combined toxicity of methadone and olanzapine” by a Hamilton County Medical Examiner.
— Michael Terrell Gibbs, 55, died May 19 at Erlanger hospital after he was transported there from Silverdale. On March 3, Gibbs was arrested and charged with possession of drug paraphernalia and violating parole. Gibbs’ cause of death was lung cancer, according to a Hamilton County Medical Examiner’s report.
— Marvin Anthony Johnston, 40, died Dec. 20 at Erlanger after he was “found unresponsive in his cell” by a correctional officer, according to the medical examiner’s report. Johnston was arrested in March and charged with three traffic infractions and evading arrest. In April, Johnston was charged with possession of contraband in a penal institution, according to court records. Johnston was taken to an area hospital from Silverdale at 7:30 p.m. where he was pronounced dead. His death was ruled an “accidental overdose” of fentanyl by a Hamilton County medical examiner.
DEATHS IN CUSTODY
— Michael Huber, old downtown jail, April 8, 2019, homicide.
— Alton Young, old downtown jail, Sept. 20, 2020, accidental.
— Nathaniel Parks, Silverdale, Nov. 7, 2020, natural causes.
— Robert Ellison, Silverdale, Jan. 3, 2021, natural causes.
— Charles Butler, old downtown jail, July 25, 2021, natural causes.
— Morghan Jean Elmore, Silverdale, Aug. 30, 2021, natural causes.
— Carol White, Silverdale, May 16, 2022, accidental.
— Michael Terrell Gibbs, Silverdale, May 19, 2022, natural causes.
— Timothy Edward Burt, Silverdale, Aug. 27, 2022, natural causes.
— Marvin Anthony Johnson, Silverdale, Dec. 20, 2022, awaiting autopsy.
— Donald Fitsgerald, Silverdale, June 12, 2022, natural causes.
— Brandon Kyle Cornett, Silverdale, April 25, 2022, natural causes.
Contact La Shawn Pagán at email@example.com or 423-757-6476.