No charges for sheriff’s deputies following in-custody prisoner death

No charges for sheriff’s deputies following in-custody prisoner death

By Chris Teale (File photo)

Fairfax County’s top prosecutor announced last week he will not pursue charges in the February death of Alexandria woman Natasha McKenna, who died after a county sheriff’s deputy used a Taser on her while trying to remove her from her cell.

McKenna, 37, was being held in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center but resisted deputies as they tried to transfer her to another cell. She was placed in hand and leg restraints and handcuffed before being Tasered four times by a deputy. She stopped breathing shortly after being Tasered and died in a local hospital.

After the incident, Commonwealth’s Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh investigated McKenna’s death to determine whether to bring any criminal charges against the Fairfax County sheriff’s deputies who restrained and Tasered her. In his 52-page report released September 8, Morrogh exonerated all deputies involved, including those on the Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team who were sent to transfer her wearing biohazard suits and gas masks.

McKenna suffered from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression for most of her life, and Morrogh’s report sheds more light on the weeks leading up to her arrest and death in custody.

The report found McKenna had been suffering delusions, was acting erratically and was in poor health in January. Morrogh wrote that McKenna climbed in the back of a stranger’s car and attempted to strangle herself with a seat belt and was combative when police were called.

On January 15, employees at a Hertz rental car agency reported that McKenna was making a disturbance. Police were called and McKenna fought with them, Morrogh’s investigation found. McKenna was hospitalized for 10 days and then arrested by Fairfax County police after she was released on an outstanding warrant for allegedly assaulting an Alexandria police officer.

McKenna’s mental health deteriorated while she was in custody awaiting transport to Alexandria, and on February 3 the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office decided to move her itself. A video, released by Sheriff Stacey Kincaid on September 10, shows what happened next as the deputies tried to move McKenna but found her to be resistant to their efforts.

“From the outset of this terrible tragedy, I promised to cooperate fully with the investigators and to be transparent about the incident involving Natasha McKenna,” Kincaid said in a statement. “Now that commonwealth’s attorney Ray Morrogh has found that no employee of the sheriff’s office has committed a crime, I am fulfilling my promise to release the complete video and all of the incident reports related to Ms. McKenna’s incarceration. The only editing
to the video is the pixelation done to protect Ms. McKenna’s privacy as much as possible.”

The report goes into great detail on what happened next, as McKenna allowed herself to be handcuffed but then became anxious and began to resist as she was dragged naked out of her cell.

“You promised you wouldn’t kill me,” she is heard to say as her cell door opens and she is faced by the SERT team and other deputies. “I didn’t do anything.”

Morrogh’s report says the deputies wrestled McKenna to the ground while she cursed and attempted to bite them in a struggle that continued for a number of minutes, in which deputies struck her on the knuckles. As her resistance continued, McKenna was Tasered four times by Lt. Lucas Salzman, who has been a certified Taser operator since 2006 and has re-qualified each year since.

McKenna was taken to a jail entrance to be transported, but she had stopped breathing. A first responder was called, but she did not recover and died at the hospital.

One of the report’s most notable findings was that several deputies described the 5-foot-4-inch McKenna as possessing “superhuman strength,” something Morrogh says is associated with the controversial mental health condition “excited delirium,” which McKenna was said to have been suffering from in a ruling by the state medical examiner in April. The condition is said to be one where a person with mental illness or who is on drugs becomes so anxious that their heart suddenly gives out. People in the grip of the condition are said to have extraordinary strength.

“[She] was…pushing us up almost like doing a push-up and she was actually pressing four of us up off the ground which was astonishing,” Deputy and SERT member Adam Henry is quoted as saying in the report.

The report also does not explain why a total of approximately 11 minutes and 34 seconds elapsed from the first medical staff evaluation of McKenna to the call for rescue when she was found to be unresponsive, and does not go into detail on why the unarmed staff and security at Mount Vernon Hospital were able to restrain her in January without needing to use force.

A federal investigation into McKenna’s death is ongoing.