Lawmakers consider bill to end investigations in 'natural' jail deaths

Friday, April 28, 2023
Texas lawmaker's bill would end investigation to 'natural' jail death
A new amendment proposed this week would make it to where non-suspicious jail deaths won't be investigated at all.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- When 28-year-old Matthew Shelton died of diabetic ketoacidosis in 2022 at the Harris County Jail, the sheriff's office initially classified Shelton's manner of death as "natural" in a basic report to the state.

13 Investigates later found out Shelton was not given the insulin and blood pressure medication ordered by jail physicians, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Getting details of jail deaths could get harder if Senate Bill 1896, which would no longer require independent investigations for "natural" deaths where there is no indication of "wrongdoing," passes.

In Texas, state law requires an outside agency to investigate all jail deaths, regardless of how the individual died.

The proposed bill, filed by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, would mean deaths like Shelton's may not be investigated.

"It could happen to any of us who are pulled over for anything and taken into the jail, and that's really alarming and worrisome to minimize the death investigations to (just) deaths that are suspicious. You don't know that they're suspicious until you investigate them," Krish Gundu, co-founder and executive director of the Texas Jail Project, said. "It's like a chicken and egg story. How do you know that they're natural or not unless you investigate them?"

RELATED: State calls out jail after 28-year-old diabetic Harris County inmate dies

Our 13 Investigates team has been looking into Shelton since he died on March 27, 2022, and recently received a copy of the Houston Police Department's independent investigation.

The report was written by an HPD officer who summarized the audio interviews and jail surveillance video.

The officer's synopsis of an interview with a responding doctor indicates that the doctor said Shelton had "blue" skin with "demarcations as if he was laying on himself for hours," according to HPD's report.

That information took months for our 13 Investigates team to obtain.

Now, Gundu is concerned that if the proposed bill becomes law, even less information will be available when an inmate dies in custody.

"This bill is going to allow for a huge loophole for counties and sheriff's offices to get away with a lot of medical neglect and abuse," Gundu said.

Still, during a Senate Committee on Criminal Justice meeting on Wednesday, Sen. Birdwell laid out the bill, saying the average in-custody death investigation takes about 30 hours, which stretches resources.

"Unexpected or natural deaths, such as cardiac arrest or cancer, can and do occur but should not require full-scale criminal investigation. Historically the Texas Rangers have been that law enforcement agency primarily responsible for investigating custodial deaths of inmates," Birdwell said during the meeting.

He said after the law that requires all jail deaths to be investigated independently went into effect in 2017, the number of cases the Texas Rangers were assigned to investigate doubled from 76 in 2017 to 126 in 2018.

"By amending the regulations of custodial deaths, the Texas Rangers could reallocate the 1,350 hours of investigative hours of resources to other investigations where criminal activity was present," Birdwell said.

The Houston Police Union has supported the measure.

Gundu said not having resources isn't a good enough reason to stop investigating all jail deaths.

"We have resources to investigate when people die in the community. We won't ever make that excuse," Gundu said. "If my loved one died on the street or in the hospital or in the community, that would be investigated. That is your right. That is part of our community's rights, and the jail is a part of our community."

The Senate Committee on Criminal Justice voted 6-0 on Wednesday for a favorable recommendation of a committee substitute that would not require independent investigations into "natural" deaths, but would require the jail death to be deemed "natural" by "a physician during an autopsy or examination of the deceased prisoner."

Still, Gundu said jail deaths need more investigation, not less.

"If you leave it to the jails and the sheriff's departments to investigate themselves, well, we know that's not going to happen," Gundu said. "This was a really, really important tool of oversight that we needed. Jails are already so opaque. Custodial deaths are so opaque. It's so hard for families to find any kind of information or closure and then to take this away, it's just a travesty."

13 Investigates reached out to Birdwell's office for an interview on the bill, but they did not respond.

Gundu said she understands the motive behind the bill - that some people think law enforcement is wasting its time investigating deaths where an inmate was sick whenever they entered the jail system. But she believes, oftentimes, that is not actually the case.

"A lot of times when we see deaths that are ruled as natural, it takes an investigation to find out later that they weren't quite natural. If somebody died of a heart attack or overdose or did not get their meds in time, or if it was even COVID-19, suicides - they're all going to be deemed as natural, and only later in independent investigations we find out that there was neglect or abuse or the constitutional right to medical care was not provided, doctors' orders were not followed," Gundu said. "All that comes out only in independent investigations, so to take that away is a huge rollback on the reforms we won with the Sandra Bland Act (in 2017)."

Last week, the Harris County Jail was found non-compliant for not properly checking on an inmate who later died.

"A review of video submitted after a custodial death revealed an inmate was able to enter a restroom and remain unobserved for 88 minutes before being discovered," according to an April 17, 2023, notice from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

The notice says minimum standards, say "facilities shall have an established procedure for documented face-to-face observation of all inmates by jailers no less than every 60 minutes."

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