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Niagara jail death ruled homicide; DA to review case

LOCKPORT - A Niagara County Jail inmate's death last summer has been ruled a homicide, Sheriff James R. Voutour said Friday.

The Niagara County District Attorney's Office will review the death of DeJuan L. Hunt II, who Voutour said died nine days after a fight with corrections officers.

Hunt, 25, was found dead in his cell Aug. 29, and an autopsy proved inconclusive, the Sheriff's Office said at the time.

Toxicology tests were ordered, and a more detailed investigation by the Erie County Medical Examiner's Office resulted in the ruling that Hunt's death was a homicide, Voutour said.

That does not necessarily mean his death was a crime, Voutour told reporters in a news conference at the jail.

"The Sheriff's Office strongly disagrees with this terminology used in the determination of the cause of his death," Voutour said.

He said the medical examiner can choose only from homicide, suicide, accident, natural or undetermined when listing a cause of death.

"The medical definition of homicide is far different than the criminal definition," Voutour said.

A homicide, in medical terminology, is a death in which another person did something that may have caused the death.

"There's no inference that the death was intentional and it does not mean that it is not necessarily a crime," Voutour said. "The medical examiner readily admitted that she determined there was not any excessive force in this case.

That wasn't the reaction of Hunt's mother when she heard the news.

"They killed my son!" Jenine M. Townsend said when she answered a call from The Buffalo News.

She said she was too upset to talk further.

"The doctor, who worked on this case very diligently, felt there were a couple of injuries on the shins of Mr. Hunt that may have caused a condition called rhabdomyalysis," Voutour said.

That's a syndrome in which muscle fiber dies and damages the kidneys, sometimes causing them to fail.

"A homicide in medical terms means a death is caused by the direct or indirect action of another," District Attorney Caroline A. Wojtaszek said. "In this case, such a determination by the medical examiner does not mean that they find that the death was intentional, nor do they find it was criminal. That's our office's job to investigate and determine.

"We have received the entire file of their internal investigation from the Niagara County Sheriff's Office, and the medical examiner's report is on its way," Wojtaszek said. "I have assigned two of my most experienced prosecutors and one investigator to conduct our own independent investigation of the matter. Mary Jean Bowman, our second assistant, and Doreen Hoffmann, our Violent Crimes Bureau chief, will examine the case with my oversight."

Wojtaszek said it's too soon to say if the case will be presented to a grand jury.

"That's obviously an option, but we have to make a determination if there's a charge to put into the grand jury on a case like this. We'll examine all of our options, obviously," Wojtaszek said.

Voutour said Hunt, who was jailed Aug. 3, was placed on a suicide watch because of suicidal threats he had made and incidents of "self-harming." He was placed in a cell and officers were assigned to watch him around the clock, a status  called "additional supervision recording." Also, Hunt's clothes were taken away and he was placed in a special suicide vest.

On Aug. 20, Voutour said, Hunt removed the vest. He was told to put it back on, and when two officers entered the cell to make him do so, Hunt allegedly started a fight. It lasted about 10 minutes before Hunt was placed in a restraint chair, and four or five officers were involved, the sheriff said.

During the struggle, a baton was pressed against Hunt's shins, in what the sheriff said was a standard technique to make someone stop struggling without endangering vital organs.

Townsend, Hunt's mother, said her son told her during a jailhouse visit Aug. 24 that he had been beaten by corrections officers. She said Hunt had a gash over one eye and bruising around it. Voutour said Friday that statement is false, but he did say there was a small mark over Hunt's eye.

Townsend said before the news conference that she has not received an autopsy report or other information about her son's death.

"I just want to know what happened. I want justice for my son," Townsend said. "It's like my son is deceased and no one cares."

The State Commission of Correction, which oversees local jails, opened a probe into Hunt's death in September. It's not complete yet.

"All I can say is, the investigation is ongoing," spokesman Justin Mason said Friday.

Voutour said the Aug. 20 struggle was not videotaped.

Hunt was in jail after being charged in connection with two alleged sex attacks on women on the campus of Niagara County Community College in Sanborn. A woman accused Hunt of grabbing her and forcing her into a stairwell in a college building during the noon hour Aug. 3. Hunt was caught on a Metro Bus taking him from the campus back to Niagara Falls.

A few days later, Hunt was charged with another alleged sex incident at NCCC July 19.

Hunt's arrest record also included charges for grand larceny and welfare fraud in 2015 and a harassment arrest July 25, both in Niagara Falls. Police records also listed him as a suspect in a 2015 rape case, but he was not charged.

Voutour said Hunt had been taking Motrin because of a sore ankle, but an X-ray revealed no broken bone. He said that during Hunt's time in jail, he was probably checked by medical personnel at least 30 times.

On Aug. 20, Hunt removed the suicide vest. Voutour said Hunt threw it at the first officer to enter his cell, "and started punching, kicking, spitting, fighting, doing everything he could to prevent those officers from restraining him. They did everything in their power to get him restrained, cuffed and into a chair."

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