Jonathan Magbie, a 27-year old quadriplegic resident of Maryland, died in a Washington DC jail on September 24, after being sentenced to 10 days imprisonment for possession of marijuana.
The marijuana conviction was a first offence for Magbie, who was paralyzed from the neck down at age 4 after his school bus was hit by a drunk driver. Since then Magbie had been under almost constant nursing care, and got around on a chin-operated wheelchair. (A year after his injury, a young Magbie had met President Ronald Reagan during a White House ceremony commemorating National Respiratory Therapy Week.)
Four grams of cocaine were also allegedly found on Magbie, along with a loaded gun. The driver of the car, Bernard Beckett, pleaded guilty to the gun charges, saying he had placed the gun on Magbie to avoid a search. Magbie pleaded guilty to the marijuana.
Although Magbie was not charged for either the gun or the cocaine, presiding Judge Judith Retchin listed them both as factors in giving the jail sentence. She also chastised Magbie for honestly saying that he would probably continue using marijuana, because it made him “feel better.” (Marijuana is well-known to reduce the spasticity and chronic pain associated with quadriplegia.)
Both prosecution and defence attorneys had agreed that the appropriate sentence for Magbie was probation, but Retchin ignored their joint recommendation and decided to give him the jail time, to teach him a lesson.
At sentencing, Judge Retchin incorrectly stated that the DC jail would be able to accommodate Magbie’s medical needs. In fact, the jail actually didn’t have the respirator Magbie needed to breathe, nor did they have the equipment needed to suction his lungs free of fluid.
After two days, the jail transferred Magbie to the Greater Southeast Community Hospital, which handles inmate hospitalizations, but the Hospital soon transferred him to the Correctional Treatment Facility (CTF), another corrections department unit near the jail.
Initial media reports claimed that the CTF told the hospital they couldn’t meet Magbie’s needs, but that the hospital would not take him back. CTF then apparently asked Judge Retchin to order the hospital to take Magbie, but Retchin refused. (Later, hospital administrators denied that the CTF had ever asked them to take Magbie back.)
According to media reports, Magbie’s mother and lawyer begged CTF staff to let her bring her son his ventilator, and after two days they were finally told that she could bring it in at 10am. Magbie’s mother arrived at 9:30am, and waited 45 minutes before a doctor came to see her. She gave him Magbie’s ventilator, and then asked guards if she could visit her son, but was told that she couldn’t because she did not have a formal appointment.
What the doctor and guards didn’t tell Magbie’s mother was that her son wasn’t even in the prison at the time. Hours before his mother’s arrival, Magbie had a medical emergency and had been transported to the hospital by ambulance. The doctor and guards all knew, but chose not to tell his mother. “If I had known, I could have told them what might have been wrong with him, and how they could help him,” she said later.
It wasn’t until later that night that Magbie’s mother received a phone call saying that her son had been hospitalized, and was now dead.
Only one week later, Chief Judge Rufus King III told the media that the investigation of Magbie’s death was closed. King added that he would be meeting with corrections officials to review their ability to deal with medical conditions in jail, and perhaps institute more training for judges.
Protest & vigil
Magbie’s death produced some scathing editorials in the Washington Post, but received virtually no national coverage.
The only formal protest against Magbie’s death was a nine-day vigil put on by Loretta Nall, leader of the US Marijuana Party. On October 5, Nall and three others stood across from the courthouse and unfurled a banner reading “Judge Retchin guilty of judicial homicide.”
(Coincidentally, the first day of Nall’s vigil also saw over a dozen arrests at a separate med-pot protest in Washington DC. Organized by Americans for Safe Access, med-pot patients and activists were arrested on the steps of the US Department of Health and Human Services, as they peacefully protested against the federal government’s claim that marijuana has no medical use.)
Nall and her supporters maintained the vigil outside the courthouse where Magbie had been convicted, and spoke to many people going into the building, as well as other passers-by.
One of the most interesting encounters was with a federal marshal who walked up to Nall and said hello. “I returned his greeting,” reported Nall, “all the while wondering what was about to happen and bracing for a head-cracking or some such brutality. Shockingly though, he began to tell me that he was the marshal who had been in charge of transporting Jonathan Magbie to the jail.”
Nall talked to the marshal for some time. “He said when he saw Magbie and his condition he was shocked and upset that a person like that could be sent to jail. He said he felt like the lowest piece of scum on earth for having to drive him to jail and that he felt deep down that something horrible might happen. He told me when he read the story in the Washington Post a few days later he broke down and cried like a baby. He said he felt responsible to a degree but that as a federal marshal he had to do what he was told.”
“I thanked him mightily for coming over and talking to me,” added Nall. “I told him how he had redeemed his fellow officers by taking a few minutes to share his part of the Magbie story with me, and by being respectful and having the courage to stand in front of that courthouse in full uniform and say the things he said. He smiled, thanked me for having the courage to speak out and said with a wink ‘If anyone asks I told you to move on.'”
Nall was disappointed by the lack of support she received during her time in Washington DC. “Aside from Marc Emery, who funded my trip, a few dedicated people from the Cannabis Culture forums who made the trip here, no-one here gives a damn about what happened. The only people who were brave enough to come and talk to us and show any support were the black defendants going in and out of the courthouse.”
Nall was also a little bitter about the lack of backing from other allied organizations. “Of all the drug policy reform groups based here in DC, only the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Policy Project offered any support to us in the form of bodies or printed materials. None of the others even bothered to put in a five minute appearance. What a shame.”
Power & racism
The Washington Post editorialized that it was Magbie’s lack of connection to “this town’s rich, famous or influential,” that resulted in his stiff sentence. Nall was far more blunt, claiming that racism played a major role in the treatment Magbie received.
Magbie was black, and according to Nall, “All Judge Retchin saw when she looked at Jonathan was another ‘dope smoking nigger.’ She did not see a helpless, vulnerable, completely dependent human being whose life was already hard enough. The drug war mentality has turned her into a monster. Her and many others.”
Washington DC is known for racist tendencies in its justice system, especially towards drug offences. Half of the black men between the ages of 20 and 29 in Washington DC are under the jurisdiction of the criminal justice system, mostly for minor drug crimes. (That is higher than the still shocking national average of one in three.)
“What happened to Jonathan Magbie is not acceptable in a civilized society,” concluded Nall after her time in Washington DC. “I wish we could have put on a longer vigil, and drawn more media attention to this case. This should have been a major story across the nation, and instead this senseless and tragic death has largely been ignored.”
* Loretta Nall and the US Marijuana Party: tel 404-806-5303; email [email protected]; web www.usmjparty.com
* Related newsclips on Pot-TV: www.pot-tv.net/shows/3113.html
* Media reports on Jonathan Magbie: www.mapinc.org/people/jonathan magbie