Florida should run independent investigations of any in-custody death.
The long-awaited autopsy of Anthony Fennick, the 23-year-old who died in Flagler County’s custody in February, is one important step toward unravelling the truth. But this investigation is far from over.
Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly seems committed to uncovering the facts in this case. It’s a shame and a scandal that he’s been forced — by the stubborn refusal of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to conduct an independent inquiry — into the unteneble and conflict-ridden position of having to investigate the actions of his own agency and contractors.'
[READ MORE: Autopsy reveals Flagler County inmate died from stroke]
Fennick died at Advent Health Palm Coast hospital of an apparent stroke, possibly spurred by an allergic reaction to a common antibiotic. That bare-bones description, however, does not convey the misery that fellow inmates and official reports described: Fennick complained for more than a week of headaches and a high fever that, as one ex-cellmate described it, “cooked him from the inside out.” Nauseated and shaking, covered with a rash, he eventually became too weak to button his jumpsuit, or turn his head as he vomited. But he wasn’t taken to the hospital until he went into seizure.
The autopsy provides a thorough assessment of his condition immediately prior to his death. But its baseline conclusion, that Fennick died of “natural causes,” does not mean what some might assume: In an autopsy, “natural causes” simply means his death was caused by illness or other internal problems, rather than trauma. It doesn’t imply that his death was unavoidable, or shed any light on whether more timely intervention might have saved his life.
In Fennick’s case, there’s still plenty of reason to believe he could have been saved. Who bears the blame for failing to give him the care he needed — and do their actions rise to the level of criminal negligence?
Staly’s next steps are clear. Now that he has the autopsy report, he intends to consult with a medical expert and work toward the conclusion of a criminal investigation, focused both on correctional officers’ actions (or inaction) and those of medical staff from Armor Correctional Health Services, the private Miami-based company the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office hired to provide health-care services to inmates. Following that will be an internal affairs investigation to determine if and how any correctional officers violated jail guidelines. The State Attorney’s Office has agreed to review the records of the investigation once it’s complete. “We’re not done by any stretch of the imagination,” says Chief Deputy Mark Strobridge.
The sheriff has already terminated Armor’s contract. And jail officials are operating under a new set of protocols meant to keep inmates healthy and ensure that warning signs aren’t ignored.
One thing, however, is clear: Staly should use this experience to push hard for a statewide policy shift toward independent investigations of any in-custody death. Early on, the sheriff requested that FDLE assign an independent investigator to this case, as it has to many jail deaths across the state. The FDLE refused. At one point, they claimed there was no evidence of criminal activity — a ridiculous statement to make, in light of the fact that there had yet to be a criminal investigation. Their second excuse — that Fennick died at a hospital, not at the jail — is equally flimsy. There’s no doubt the young man was in custody.
Because the agency won’t step in, Staly faces a harsh reality: It seems likely, based on what’s already known, that his investigations will show that somebody — probably several somebodies — failed to acknowledge that a young man’s life was slipping away. No matter where his investigation leads, there will be some people who refuse to trust the results. That’s not fair to Fennick’s family, to Staly or to the people of Flagler County.