By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 18, 2005
An inquiry into the death last year of a 27-year-old quadriplegic inmate has
concluded that D.C. Superior Court made only a "limited and uninformed" inquiry
about the man's medical needs before ordering him to serve a 10-day sentence for
But the investigation by the Commission on Judicial Disabilities and Tenure
cleared the judge in the case, Judith E. Retchin, of judicial misconduct,
concluding that she acted within the law and made an effort to ensure that a
D.C. jail would be able to care for Jonathan Magbie.
The report cited "failures of communication among the participants in this
tragic sequence of events."
The commission's report, released yesterday, is one of three official inquiries
into Magbie's death Sept. 24. An earlier investigation by the D.C. Department
of Health faulted Greater Southeast Community Hospital for failing to provide
adequate care to Magbie after he was brought there from the jail. The Office of
the Inspector General is examining the actions of the jail staff.
From the beginning, Magbie's family had focused its fury on the judge, who
rejected probation -- a common sentence for a first-time misdemeanor offender
-- and instead ordered him jailed for 10 days.
In a demonstration outside the courthouse in the days after Magbie's death, his
mother, Mary Scott, called Retchin a killer and demanded her removal from the
Retchin, a judge for almost 13 years and a top federal prosecutor before that,
was interviewed by the commission, and the report provides the most extensive
public account of her thinking in the case beyond what emerged in court
The judge told the commission that she was leaning toward probation but
reconsidered after Magbie told court investigators that he would continue to
use marijuana because it alleviated the discomfort of his disability. Retchin
said Magbie's attitude and the fact that he had been arrested with a gun -- a
charge that was dropped as part of the plea -- convinced her that he should
receive more than probation.
That is the theory I have maintained from the very beginning. Is it any wonder people are afaid to speak out in favor of medical marijuana?
According to the commission, she and her staff made an error in trying to
determine whether the jail could accommodate Magbie.
Retchin told her law clerk to find out from the chief judge's office whether the
jail could care for a paraplegic. Magbie was almost a total quadriplegic, having
slight use of one hand but otherwise paralyzed from the neck down.
According to the commission, a staff member in the chief judge's office who is
the court's liaison with the jail incorrectly assumed that Magbie was a
sentenced felon and faced at least a year in prison, which would have meant he
was headed to a federal prison and not a D.C. jail. The result was that Retchin
was told that the jail could accommodate Magbie.
Retchin told the commission that if she had known at the time about Magbie's
acute medical needs, she would have come to a different decision, "a period of
home confinement, rather than a jail term, would have far better served her
sentencing objective," the report states, paraphrasing the judge.
Instead, Magbie, who was paralyzed at age 4 when he was struck by a drunken
driver, was taken to jail in his motorized wheelchair.
Five days into his sentence, Magbie of Mitchellville died at Greater Southeast.
It was his second trip to the hospital, having been taken there on his first
day in jail. After the first hospitalization, a doctor at the jail tried
unsuccessfully to have Magbie returned to the hospital, fearing that he would
again need urgent medical care. But Magbie did not make it back to the hospital
until the next day, when he was already in distress.
Greater Southeast has said Magbie received "appropriate care."
The commission found that the judge, court staff and Department of Corrections
did not know at the time of Magbie's sentencing that his compromised
respiratory system was "susceptible to swift deterioration requiring acute-care
Last night, Scott said Retchin should have known.
"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?"
The judge told the commission she did not know that Magbie regularly used a
ventilator to help him breathe, especially when he was sleeping. He had not
used one in court and his lawyer, Boniface Cobbina, made no mention of his
needing a ventilator, which jail officials later said they were not equipped to
In an interview yesterday, Chief Judge Rufus G. King III said the court had
taken steps to improve the way it handles defendants with serious medical
conditions. The medical alert forms that are completed for such defendants have
been revised to require more information. Judges have been told that in the most
serious cases, they should handle the inquiries directly, not leave them
exclusively to court staff.
"It's definitely a lesson for all of us," King said.