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Editorial: Death in Suffolk police custody demands answers

Danielle McDonnell, of Lindenhurst, holds her 2001 wedding

Danielle McDonnell, of Lindenhurst, holds her 2001 wedding photo of her and her husband Daniel McDonnell. (June 26, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Why did Daniel McDonnell die while in the custody of Suffolk County police? More than two years after the Lindenhurst man with bipolar disorder struggled with police inside a holding cell at the First Precinct in West Babylon and stopped breathing, that critical question still hasn't been answered satisfactorily.

The New York State Commission of Correction called it "a preventable death" in a recent report. It labeled the Suffolk County Police Department homicide investigation "cursory and incomplete," and said that the county's medical examiner and district attorney also failed to properly investigate the incident. Such a troubling assessment has ignited a furious response. District Attorney Thomas Spota denied the allegation about his office and slammed the commission for failing to interview his staff or even review the DA's investigative documents. Spota wants the commission to reopen the case and look at his findings. It should.

If not, then some other authority responsible for oversight should take a fresh look. McDonnell's family has filed a lawsuit for millions of dollars and the commission bases some of its findings on statements obtained by McDonell's lawyers. In the interest of justice, and Suffolk taxpayers, the loose ends here must be tied up tight. After all, a man is dead.

McDonnell, a 40-year-old carpenter, husband and father, was arrested May 5, 2011, and charged with a misdemeanor for allegedly driving a car at a neighbor in violation of a protective order. Police said he was polite, cooperative and attentive when taken into custody.

The commission report gave the following account of what happened after that. When he got to the First Precinct at 1:46 p.m., McDonnell told officers he was bipolar. His mother brought his medication to the precinct that afternoon, but police didn't give it to him, they said because the pills weren't in properly marked bottles. They told McDonnell he would be taken to a hospital for medication if necessary. Two prisoners in nearby cells reported McDonnell repeatedly screamed for his medicine throughout the night; however, a prisoner activity log maintained by police made no mention of any request. By 7 a.m., McDonnell was naked and banging his head on the cell's toilet, which he had stuffed with his clothes.

According to statements from 14 members of the Suffolk police department in the precinct that night, cited by the state commission, that's when five to 10 officers moved in to take McDonnell from the cell and to a hospital. After he refused to be handcuffed, he was shot twice with a stun gun, grabbed by the officers and pinned to the floor with a riot shield. Once subdued, his hands and legs were cuffed. Within seconds of being left outside the cell, police said, McDonnell stopped breathing and attempts to revive him failed. A detainee in a cell near McDonnell reported hearing what sounded to him like "a beating" that went on for about 10 minutes -- not the one to three minutes police said it took to restrain McDonnell.

The commission said the cause of death was "compressive asphyxia." The medical examiner listed it as "sudden death following physical struggle and restraint." Both called it a homicide, which simply means another person contributed to the death; it doesn't imply criminal responsibility or civil liability.

Spota never presented the case to a grand jury. Did police act improperly that night? His family wants to know and so do we.