We already know the real cause of death of Marcia Powell, the 48-year-old inmate at Goodyear's Perryville Prison who collapsed after being left in a shadeless cage for at least four hours in the pitiless Arizona sun: Department of Corrections honcho Charles Ryan ordered her plug pulled on May 20, hours after her collapse. This, despite the fact that Powell, who suffered from serious mental illness, had a guardian, Maricopa County's Office of the Public Fiduciary.
Medical examiner Mark Fischione's conclusion homes in on what led to Powell being in such a state that Ryan could opt to suspend life support on the woman, who was serving a 27-month stint for prostitution. In his recently released report, Fischione found that the cause of death was "complications of hyperthermia due to environmental heat exposure." The manner of death is ruled an "accident." You can read the report online at my Feathered Bastard blog.
The external examination revealed blistering and first- and second-degree "thermal injuries" (otherwise known as burns) on her upper body, arms, and face. Toxicology showed several prescription medications in her body, including Benztropine, a medication for Parkinson's disease; the antipsychotic medication Haloperidol; and valproic acid, a mood-stabilizing drug used to treat depression and epilepsy.
According to an ADC statement released at the time, Powell was "placed in an outside, uncovered, chain-linked holding cell at 11 a.m.," on a day temperatures reached 107 degrees.
"At 2:40 p.m., Powell collapsed," the ADC's statement says. "Powell was taken to West Valley Hospital at 3:12 p.m. She was pronounced dead at 12:42 a.m. Wednesday [May 20]."
Did Powell cry out for water or help before she lost consciousness? It seems likely. Did anyone hear her pleas? If so, why did they not act? Did the medications Powell was on contribute to her collapse in any way? Powell was under the care of a mental-health provider at the prison. Obviously, the meds she was on would have been known to authorities there.
"We are trying to reserve judgment until we see everything, including the [ADC's] investigation," said Donna Hamm, whose organization, Middle Ground Prison Reform, ultimately took custody of Powell's remains. "But the autopsy does seem to raise the question of how far prison officials can go before something they do is ruled a reckless homicide. I guess the county attorney will make that final decision. We will certainly be interested in how this plays out."
Powell's cremains were committed June 28 at Shadow Rock United Church of Christ in Phoenix. Her body may now be laid to rest, but the questions concerning her death resonate.
Ryan, known by his detractors as "Darth Ryan" on the corrections gossip Web site the Lumley Vampire, told me in May at a memorial service for Powell that he did not know Powell had a court-appointed guardian when he ordered her life support suspended on the advice of the physicians on duty at the hospital. He said ADC had no record of Powell's having a guardian. This information should have been part of Powell's file. If it wasn't, why wasn't it?
The Fiduciary's Office sought next of kin for Powell, someone to take custody of her remains. Powell's adoptive mother, Joanne Buck, 76, of La Quinta, California, was located by the fiduciary, but she said she'd had "very little contact" over the years with Powell, and most of it was unpleasant. She told the fiduciary that she didn't want to take custody of Powell's remains.
Other leads on the whereabouts of Powell's family did not pan out for the fiduciary. A son, Richard Hussman, had been murdered. A daughter, Eureka Breshard, had been adopted by family in Tempe, but there was no indication as to where she might be now.
Another person by the name of Troy Troutman (with the alternative spelling of "Trautman") was listed in one of Powell's mental health files as "next of kin," with no further explanation. In testimony before Commissioner Michael Hintze concerning the matter, a representative of the Fiduciary's Office speculated that Troutman might be a son, but it could not locate him.
Donna Hamm tells me that one of Powell's fellow inmates told her that Powell said she had a son named Troy. The medical examiner's report indicates Powell had several tattoos, one of which was the name "Troy" on her upper right arm. Others were of a flower, a teardrop, and the names "John" and "John C."
One thing's for certain, someone out there has one humdinger of a lawsuit they could file against the state, whether it be a son, a daughter, a mom, or all of the above. Imagine that teardrop tattoo on Powell's face as a dollar sign.
On the criminal tip, don't hold your breath. Ryan rejected calls for an independent investigation into Powell's death, leaving ADC instead to perform its own internal review. The results of that investigation have not yet been released.