Inmate who died from virus had asked for release before trial, then DOJ opposed
Posted April 13, 2020 4:28 p.m. EDT
CNN — A Washington, DC, inmate who died Monday had pleaded in court to be released weeks ago because of fears coronavirus would spread at the jail.
Deon Crowell, 51, was awaiting a trial on a first-degree murder charge when he died. He had been taken to a local hospital on April 7, the same day he was diagnosed with coronavirus after experiencing respiratory problems, a spokesperson for the jail said Monday.
Crowell's case and the unusual setup of the criminal justice system in DC -- where the federal prosecutors' office and judges appointed by the President often handle local crime -- highlights the approach taken by Attorney General William Barr to stay tough on allegedly violent prisoners awaiting trial despite the pandemic. It also reflects the relatively slow pace of the courts in responding to a fast-spreading pandemic.
Crowell's attorney had asked a DC Superior Court judge on March 20 to make an emergency decision to release him, citing "close contact and conditions" at the local jail and his high risk of coronavirus complications because he was diabetic, according to documents in his criminal case.
Crowell was still presumed to be innocent under the law, his attorney noted, and suggested he return to his home of 15 years with his wife for home confinement while wearing a GPS ankle bracelet.
"He was awaiting trial — he was innocent and never proven guilty. There was no reason for him to die today," Crowell's attorney told CNN Monday.
But the federal prosecutors in DC who handled his case disagreed, writing to the judge four days ago that Crowell shouldn't be released, according to court records. Their full reasoning wasn't available on Monday.
When Crowell died, Judge Danya Dayson hadn't yet decided what to do.
Crowell's attorney wasn't alone in trying to seek relief for his client amid the pandemic.
Since the outbreak in the US began, defense attorneys across the country have repeatedly gone to court asking for judges to release defendants, and the Justice Department largely has opposed those requests.
Coronavirus spread rapidly among incarcerated people, especially in local and state jails, and some local governments have decided to release prisoners as a way to reduce the jail populations. But DC hasn't taken this approach.
Some inmates in DC have sued for release and for access to cleaning supplies, and a federal judge ordered an inspection of the DC jail last week. Those findings aren't back yet but are due to the court this Wednesday.
Barr told prosecutors in a memo last week to continue pushing "as zealously today as you would have before the pandemic began" to keep allegedly violent defendants awaiting trial in jail. "Protecting the public from criminals is our paramount obligation," Barr wrote to his prosecutors.
Warning of 'potential mortality'
Just days before Crowell asked for release, the DC jail had seen its first case of coronavirus. Other inmates soon after complained in court that the jail's setup, including communal bathrooms, eating areas, cells and a lack of soap, water and paper towels, made it nearly impossible for inmates to distance themselves enough to stop spreading the virus.
"Mr. Crowell's constitutional rights, health and safety, and potential mortality are threatened by his incarceration, and this Court should release him from custody," Crowell's attorney, Elizabeth Weller, wrote on March 20.
Crowell had been in jail since late June 2018, after his arrest for allegedly stabbing and killing a woman six months earlier in Northeast Washington.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser announced Crowell's death on Monday.
"Our condolences are with Mr. Crowell's family during this difficult time," a spokesperson for the city's Department of Corrections said in a statement.
The DC federal prosecutors' office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.
Crowell's attorney said Monday he is survived by his wife, daughter, two grandchildren and four siblings, and was known as a lifelong DC resident who would "check in on older neighbors and clean up unkempt yards and alleys," Weller wrote in an email to CNN.
His trial had been scheduled for October 2019 but was postponed, Weller noted, because police body-camera footage from his case's investigation was discovered to have been deleted just before the trial was set to begin.
"If (prosecutors) had disclosed the fact of these grossly negligent deletions in a timely manner, as they are legally obligated to do, Mr. Crowell would not have been in jail awaiting his trial. The entire system failed him," Weller wrote. "We only hope this serves as a wake up call so it does not happen to anyone else."
Washington, DC, jail officials reported four new cases of coronavirus inside the jail facilities over the weekend. In all, 42 inmates had tested positive for the virus and were in isolation as of April 11, according to DC jail spokesperson Keena Blackmon. The Department of Corrections noted nine others had recovered from the virus.
Washington, DC's total reported Covid-19 deaths are now up to 53. An uptick of 80 new positive cases brought the District's total cases of coronavirus up to 1,955 on Monday afternoon.