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Editorial: Latest inmate death at Holding Center requires answers to troubling questions

Can anyone doubt at this point that a criminal investigation needs to be launched into the 2012 death of an inmate in the Erie County Holding Center?

Not only has the state Commission of Correction concluded that jail deputies suffocated Richard Metcalf Jr., but that for days, the Sheriff’s Department kept the commission in the dark about two crucial facts: A “spit mask” had been tied around Metcalf’s neck and he had been placed face down with a pillow case pulled over his head, preventing him from breathing. That silence, alone, is suspicious and possibly incriminating.

For those reasons, the commission has encouraged the Erie County district attorney to begin a criminal investigation and the U.S. Justice Department to launch a civil rights probe. Both should clearly be done, though neither department has yet committed.

But other questions need to be answered, as well, for the benefit of taxpayers, if not for a jury: Where was Sheriff Timothy B. Howard in all of this? Did he know about the spit mask and pillowcase? Does the buck stop with him or does it not? How is it possible that the county’s elected sheriff either didn’t know about, or allowed concealment of, the details of an inmate’s homicide?

Other than disputing the report, Howard has been silent about this matter since the Commission of Correction report was released last week. That’s a disservice to the public, which relies on the sheriff both for equal enforcement of the law and for the professional management of his department, including the jail.

If the commission’s findings are wrong, he needs to say exactly how they are wrong. Where does its conclusion deviate from the facts? What would be a correct conclusion that accounts for the too-tight spit mask, the pillowcase and, when emergency medical workers arrived, the refusal of deputies to allow them to turn Metcalf over or remove the mask?

If Acting District Attorney Michael J. Flaherty Jr. doesn’t begin an investigation promptly, then the winner of November’s election – Democrat John J. Flynn Jr. or Conservative Joseph V. Treanor III – must do so upon taking office. So far, only Flynn has committed.

The need is plain. An investigation doesn’t mean a crime has been committed. It means there is a suspicion of one and that questions need to be asked. That much is obvious.

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