A ten-day jail sentence for marijuana possession turned into a death sentence for a quadriplegic suburban Washington, DC, man last fall when 27-year-old Jonathan Magbie died at the DC Jail last September 24 after authorities there and at a DC hospital failed to provide proper medical attention. DC Superior Court Judge Judith Retchin, who handed down the unusually harsh sentence -- most minor pot possessors never see the inside of the jail -- was the object of especially harsh criticism from Magbie's family and supporters, but she has now been cleared of any wrongdoing by a DC judicial commission.
Retchin made only a "limited and uninformed" inquiry about Magbie's medical requirements before delivering the wheelchair-bound man over to the tender mercies of the DC Jail, the Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure concluded March 17. But the report cleared her of misconduct, concluding that she acted within the law by making an effort -- no matter how feeble -- to ensure that the jail could provide for Magbie's medical needs.
The fault lay not with humans but with "failures of communication among the participants in this tragic sequence of events," the report concluded. According to the commission, communications between Retchin's staff and DC jail personnel failed to clarify that Magbie was to serve his sentence at the jail and was not a felony offender set to be sent to federal prison.
An earlier investigation of Greater Southeast Community Hospital by the DC Department of Health faulted the hospital for failing to provide adequate care after he was sent there from the jail. A DC Office of the Inspector General investigation of the actions of jail staff is pending.
While most simple marijuana possession offenders in DC receive probation, Judge Retchin said she ordered the jail sentence after Magbie told court investigators he would continue to smoke marijuana for health reasons and because a gun was found in the vehicle in which he was arrested. According to Retchin, who was interviewed for the report, if she had known about Magbie's medical needs, especially access to a ventilator while he slept, she would have selected "a period of home confinement, rather than a jail term, which would have far better served her sentencing objective," the report said, paraphrasing the judge.
Instead, Magbie and his motorized wheelchair were taken to the DC Jail. He was hospitalized during his first day there, then returned to the jail, then hospitalized again before dying half-way through his sentence.
In demonstrations outside the courthouse in the days after his death, Magbie's mother, Mary Scott bitterly criticized Retchin, a former prosecutor, calling her a murderer and demanding she be removed from the bench. Talking to a Washington Post reporter after the judge was cleared, Scott remained unmollified. "If she wanted to know if they could accommodate him, she should have tried to find out what his needs were," Scott said. "How can you say someone's going to take care of you if you don't know what they need?"