Report: Suffolk authorities failed to investigate 'preventable' homicide in police custody

Suffolk police, the medical examiner and the district attorney all failed to properly investigate the 2011 death of a Lindenhurst man with bipolar disorder who suffocated during a struggle with police, a report by the state Commission of Correction says. Videojournalist: Chris Ware (June 26, 2013)

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Suffolk police, the medical examiner and the district attorney all failed to properly investigate the 2011 death of a Lindenhurst man with bipolar disorder who suffocated during a struggle with police after he did not receive his medication, a state report found.

In what the state Commission of Correction calls a "preventable" homicide, Daniel McDonnell, 40 -- in custody for a misdemeanor dispute with a neighbor -- died after First Precinct officers shot him repeatedly with a stun gun and pinned him to the floor with a riot shield when he yelled for his drugs and flooded his cell by stuffing his clothes in the toilet.

Noting inconsistencies in the versions of the event given by officers involved, the report released this week said the police department, the medical examiner and prosecutors all failed to properly investigate the May 6, 2011, death, which the medical examiner also has called a homicide.

County officials declined to comment on the report, said Vanessa Baird-Streeter, spokeswoman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, because the death is the subject of a wrongful-death civil suit filed in 2011 by McDonnell's family.

Suffolk police said in a statement the department "does not comment on potential/pending litigation" and Suffolk County district attorney spokesman Robert Clifford called the report's critique of the office "inaccurate and baseless."

The commission gives a scathing assessment of how the county handled the case. "The Suffolk County Police Department failed to conduct a comprehensive internal investigation of its officers and the use of physical force that resulted in McDonnell's death," the report said. The commission also called the homicide squad's investigation "cursory and incomplete."

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The Albany-based agency, which looks into deaths in jails, prisons and police lockups, criticized the Suffolk medical examiner's review. It said "the forensic investigation failed to adequately identify and examine the blunt force injuries to McDonnell . . . and failed to adequately establish and examine the events."

The commission identified "compressive asphyxia" as the cause of death and said that the manner of death was homicide.

The medical examiner's autopsy report also said McDonnell's manner of death was homicide. However, the identified cause was "sudden death following physical struggle and restraint in a person with bipolar disorder with excited delirium syndrome; hypertensive cardiovascular disease and obesity."

The commission's report noted that Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota's office "failed to conduct any investigation of this incident even though it was ruled a homicide and no investigative findings were ever brought before an independent grand jury to determine whether the use of force was justified and lawful."

The commission's report was written by physician Phyllis Harrison-Ross and recommends the police department review the actions of the supervisor, sergeants and officers involved in the death. It also recommended the medical examiner re-examine the forensic evidence and review autopsy protocol.

The Commission of Correction sets policies and standards for state correction facilities and the treatment of detainees, and can close facilities that don't comply.

Stephen Civardi of Freeport is representing McDonnell's family in a $50 million wrongful death lawsuit filed against Suffolk County in 2011.

"I'm astonished they thought they could get away with it," said Civardi, referring to what he called poor performance on the part of the three agencies. "There seems to be no concern by county officials."

Danielle McDonnell, the victim's widow, said she was "disgusted" by what police did to her husband, whose son is 11.

"I think that somebody should be held accountable," she said. "You need police. They keep people safe. But my view of the Suffolk County Police Department is one of disgust."

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Her husband had been awaiting arraignment on a misdemeanor charge involving a dispute with a neighbor on May 5, 2011. Officers arrested him on a charge of violating a restraining order. He arrived at the First Precinct just before 2 p.m. on May 5, 2011, the report said.

His mother, Bridget McDonnell, tried to deliver two bottles of medication to the precinct about 3:30 p.m. Police said they did not give him the drugs because the bottles were not properly labeled, the report said. They told the mother she needed better documentation and her son would be given medication at an emergency room if he wanted it.

The report said McDonnell began screaming repeatedly at officers to give him his psychiatric medication in the early morning hours of May 6. He was told to calm down, but he continued yelling, pacing in the holding cell and then clogged the toilet with clothes, flushing it repeatedly. When he refused to comply with a police order to put his hands behind his back, officers stunned him at least twice and after the struggle began, at least nine officers became involved.

Officers told the commission they were trying to restrain McDonnell so they could take him to a hospital. They called an ambulance when he became motionless after the struggle.

Danielle McDonnell said police first told her that her husband had suffered a heart attack while in custody. She said she became suspicious when the funeral director her family hired told her that he might not be able to cover up all of the bruises on her husband's body. She later learned of the extent of the struggle that ended her husband's life.

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"Danny didn't die due to an illness or a health reason or something you could actually accept," said Danielle McDonnell. " . . . I don't see a reason why any person is above being investigated or prosecuted for doing something that they shouldn't have done."

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