The 2015 death of Jamycheal Mitchell at Hampton Roads Regional Jail remains under active criminal investigation, but next week some officials involved in previous reviews of it are scheduled to help host a “lessons learned and best practices” training seminar on jail deaths.
Among the presenters is Capt. Timothy Reibel of the Virginia State Police, who is listed on the agenda to train officials in the area of gathering facts.
A court filing May 30 raised questions about the thoroughness of the state police investigation into Mitchell’s death. The filings by Portsmouth Commonwealth’s Attorney Stephanie N. Morales said there were witnesses and medical records held by the jail’s former medical services provider that had not been examined.
The filing said the medical provider had not allowed state police to interview certain people about the death. In response, officials with the medical provider, Alabama-based NaphCare, insisted that they had only told a state police investigator that employees could not be interviewed without an attorney present. NaphCare said after that, the company complied with every request by state police, and that state police never asked the company for records.
The prosecutor’s court filing said her office did not believe jail records obtained by state police were the totality of Mitchell’s medical file. NaphCare officials publicly responded that they would cooperate with Morales in arranging interviews with medical staff members who worked in the jail at the time, and in providing any records they had.
An investigator in Morales’ office took over after state police turned over their file on June 9 and also after Portsmouth’s Circuit Court judges rejected the prosecutor’s request for a special grand jury to investigate.
Participants and state police respond
Brian Moran, the state’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, is scheduled to be among the presenters at the training Monday in Hampton Roads, and will talk about legislation now in effect that gives the state Board of Corrections new authority to oversee jail death investigations.
Moran oversees Virginia State Police. When asked Tuesday about the state police investigation into Mitchell’s death , he said, “I’m not going to question the state police investigators.”
He said he had spoken to Col. W. Steven Flaherty, the state police superintendent. As to skepticism about whether police were thorough in the investigation, Moran said, “They have a decidedly different opinion as to their thoroughness.”
State police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said in a statement that Reibel was invited by Linda Bryant, a former deputy attorney general in the office of Attorney General Mark R. Herring. Bryant became assistant superintendent of Hampton Roads Regional Jail in 2016 and was brought in to help turn the jail around.
Bryant asked Reibel “to provide a presentation on case management for investigations,” Geller said. “His presentation has nothing to do with nor will cite the Jamycheal Mitchell investigation, which remains ongoing at this time.”
Vince Ferrara, executive director of the Hampton Roads Criminal Justice Academy, the training host, issued a statement saying the training is “to thoroughly discuss recent legislative and state developments requiring additional oversight of jail death investigations (a best practice); the role of jail administration, internal affairs, local police, the Department of Justice, and the Virginia State Police, relevant National Commission on Correctional Health Care standards (“NCCHC”) and NCCHC Mental Health care standards; and the need to be transparent and open with the public.
“While active investigations and court cases will not be discussed, and there are still unanswered questions, we will be discussing applicable standards. We are committed to improving in this area to help prevent deaths, to ensure thoroughness and to build public trust.”
No ‘good answers yet,’ McAuliffe says
Mitchell’s death highlighted flaws across the state’s criminal justice and mental health system. The 24-year-old suffered from mental illness and took snacks from a store he believed was owned by his father. Portsmouth police arrested him, and a judge later ordered that he be transferred to a state mental hospital for evaluation. However, due to mistakes at the state level, he was never transferred from the jail and wasted away in isolation. Mitchell had lost significant weight when he was found dead in his cell.
Several powerful state agencies did reviews, but none of them was able to get to the heart of his treatment in the jail. His death remains the subject of civil litigation.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe has regularly expressed dismay at the lack of answers, and he did so again Tuesday when he greeted members of the state Board of Corrections at their meeting to encourage them in their new role overseeing investigations of questionable jail deaths. The governor appoints the members.
“I’m still baffled over the whole Jamycheal Mitchell issue and how somebody who took $5 worth of junk food ended up dead in one of our jails. I just find that unconscionable, and I still haven’t had any good answers yet,” McAuliffe told the board. “We owe it to the families, we owe it to the friends, and we owe it to our citizens if something happens, to find out why and how it occurred, plain and simple.”
But after the meeting, McAuliffe seemed unaware of the status of the pending criminal investigation. He said state police would turn over their file when they’re finished. That happened June 9, and the review continues under the Portsmouth prosecutor and that office’s investigator.
In a statement later, McAuliffe spokeswoman Heather Fluit said McAuliffe remains “frustrated” by the slow pace of the criminal investigation.
“As the elected commonwealth attorney for the city of Portsmouth, Ms. Morales has been entrusted to determine how to proceed with the criminal investigation to find answers, and as long as she feels there is more to learn, the governor hopes she will continue to pursue her investigation and follow it wherever it needs to go,” Fluit said in an email.
The U.S. Department of Justice also has a pending review of practices at the regional jail.
The Mitchell death revealed a huge hole — no state agency seemed responsible for investigating a questionable death in a local jail. McAuliffe wanted $200,000 for two investigators to do just that; the General Assembly this year gave him $100,000 for one.
The Board of Corrections appears likely to hire two part-time people with that money. Phyllis J. Randall, the board chairwoman, said she spoke with Harold W. Clarke, the director of the state Department of Corrections, and Victoria Cochran, the state’s deputy secretary of public safety. Clark believes using the money for two part-time positions would be more advantageous than one full-time position, Randall told the board, and the three of them agreed.
One position would be an investigator and the second would handle administrative duties on jail deaths, like writing policy and reports — if the full board agrees.
Hiring two part-time employees instead of one also would allow the board to avoid advertising for the jobs. The board could identify a candidate and do a direct hire, said Joseph W. Walters, the human resources director for the Department of Corrections.
Advertising and putting the jobs out for bid is “going to be a much longer process,” Randall said. “The goal we were trying to have is if anyone knew of names that could be put into consideration, the process could be a shorter process.”
The board will hold a retreat Aug. 16. Randall suggested that board members come with names of possible job candidates either inside the Department of Corrections, or externally.
Board member John F. Anderson Jr. suggested that two board members in particular may have ideas for good job candidates: Deputy Virginia Beach Police Chief Bill Dean and retired Southampton Sheriff Vernie Francis Jr. “Being formerly and currently in law enforcement ... (they) might have some ideas as to a retired investigator from their department who might be interested and available,” Anderson said.
“That’s one of the advantages, I think, of a direct hire. In addition to speed of process, we can utilize possibly some of their help.”
Randall responded: “In that regard, that may be a benefit of having a person be part time. Because if someone’s retired they probably don’t want to come back to a position full time.”