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Editorial: Prosecutor unnecessarily limiting investigation into inmate's death

Who watches the watchmen? Or in this case, the watchwoman?

The aphorism comes to mind with the revelation that Cattaraugus County District Attorney Lori Pettit Rieman refuses to interview the national expert who ruled that Erie County jail workers caused the death of an inmate. Rieman is investigating that death because of a conflict of interest within the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, and seems to be doing her best to mess it up.

The case came to light after the New York State Commission of Correction recommended that prosecutors review the death of Richard A. Metcalf, a mentally troubled inmate of the Erie County Holding Center. The recommendation was prompted by a report from the commission’s Medical Review Board, which concluded that jailers caused Metcalf’s death by asphyxiation in part by tightly tying a spit mask around his neck. It also noted that deputies had put a pillowcase on the prisoner’s head, placed him facedown on a stretcher and refused to allow emergency medical personnel to turn him over until he was out of the building. He was taken to a hospital, where he died.

Rieman has had the case for eight months and has not even contacted Dr. Michael M. Baden, a nationally recognized expert who served on the Medical Review Board and whose work influenced the board’s ruling. That’s a failure of rigor.

Rieman’s excuse is that she doubts both Baden’s credibility and the methods the Medical Review Board used in its investigation. But she wouldn’t say why she holds those doubts and gave a reporter conflicting answers on whether she will rule on the case before Election Day, when Erie County voters will decide whether to re-elect Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard. Rieman is also up for re-election, but has no opponent.

In the meantime, a deadline looms: On Nov. 29, the five-year statute of limitations will expire on at least two potential charges, manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.

If this isn’t an investigation with a predetermined conclusion, Rieman is making it appear that way. All homicide cases are important, of course, but they take on additional layers of significance when those sworn to uphold the law are among the suspects and especially when the victim was entirely in their control.

Metcalf was, without doubt, a difficult prisoner and deputies seemed ill prepared to deal with his deranged behavior. But the facts are that deputies were in charge of him and that they played a role in his death. That is beyond dispute, according to the Medical Review Board. The question has been whether jailers are criminally liable for the death. Now there’s a new one: Is Rieman attempting to answer or obscure the first one?

If Rieman declines to file charges in the case without interviewing Baden or other important players, investigators from other arms of government need to be ready to step in. They include New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman and federal prosecutors, who could look into the case as a civil rights matter.

It is unknown what Rieman will conclude or when she will announce her decision. What is known is that by conducting what appears, thus far, to be a willfully limited investigation, she is compromising confidence in whatever she decides. The public has a right to expect more from its law enforcement professionals.

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