The state Attorney General's Office will investigate the 2016 death of an Erie County Holding Center inmate who spent her final days babbling on the floor of her cell, laying in her urine.
India Cummings would be alive had she received adequate medical care, the state Commission of Correction said in a June report, which deemed her death a homicide due to medical neglect. The commission urged criminal authorities to act.
On Thursday, the state Attorney General's Office said it would do so.
"We’re committed to conducting an independent, comprehensive, and fair investigation,” the office said in a statement.
"I'm thrilled. I literally started crying," County Legislator April N. M. Baskin, D-Buffalo, said of the moment she heard the news. As chairwoman of the Legislature's Public Safety Committee, Baskin shined a spotlight on the Cummings matter and urged a criminal investigation.
"I think that this proves that when a community stands with its leaders on issues of justice, we will get results," she said. "I believe the attorney general will see what a horrific situation we have with our Holding Center."
District Attorney John J. Flynn, too, applauded the move. Flynn had agreed that Cummings death should be investigated by a criminal authority but said he could not do so himself because his office employs the wife of a jail sergeant. Flynn had filed court papers urging a judge to appoint a special prosecutor if Attorney General Barbara Underwood did not take it on.
Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, the elected official who oversees the Holding Center, issued no statement. Facing a civil lawsuit focused on Cummings' death, Howard and his staff have said little about her. But in a recent appearance before Baskin's committee, Howard disputed the Commission of Correction's findings by asking lawmakers: "Why are you so willing to accept as true what is no more than an opinion?"
Cummings was the 21st inmate to die in either the Holding Center in downtown Buffalo or the Correctional Facility in Alden since Howard became sheriff in 2005. The list has since risen to 24.
The Commission of Correction's Medical Review Board had issued blistering reports against Howard and his staff after reviewing other jail deaths over the years. But its report on Cummings was highly critical.
"The medical and mental health care provided to Cummings by Erie County during the course of incarceration, and her care, custody and safekeeping by Erie County sheriff deputies was so grossly incompetent and inadequate as to shock the conscience," the state panel of doctors and lawyers said.
In the original autopsy, a pathologist working for Erie County said the inmate died chiefly from complications stemming from an untreated broken arm and the tissue breakdown it caused, rhabdomyolysis. But Dr. Scott F. LaPoint was unable to designate the cause or manner of death because he was unable to determine certain factors, including whether the arm was broken in a car crash, which would have made it an accidental death, or during her struggles with police, which could have made it a homicide, a death at the hands of others.
The Medical Review Board was unequivocal. "The cause of her death," it said, "was a massive pulmonary embolism resulting from acute renal failure, rhabdomyolysis, dehydration and fracture of the humerus; and that the manner of her death was homicide by medical neglect."
Cummings was arrested Feb. 1, 2016, after carjacking a vehicle in an attempt to return to Rochester, where she had lived for many years. She punched the driver of a Ford Taurus and dragged him out of his car. She then led officers on a chase that ended after the Taurus struck three vehicles and a school bus. Acquaintances said she had been smoking synthetic marijuana and attributed her behavior to the dangerous substance known as K2.
Two days after she was jailed, Cummings was taken to the Holding Center infirmary. But while there, she argued with the medical staff and was denied treatment. Then she punched a jail deputy returning her to her cell. The female deputy keeled over with a concussion as several deputies were called to subdue the inmate.
A picture of a confused inmate in a mental tailspin emerges as the Medical Review Board chronicles Cummings' last days. She refused medications, rejected several meals and went long stretches of time, as much as 32 hours in one span, without urinating. She "seemed out of it" and "didn't act like she knew she was in jail," a jail deputy told a commission investigator.
On Feb. 13, 2016 – 13 days after arriving in the Holding Center – Cummings was under one-on-one observation. She was babbling to herself and urinating on the floor. The next day, she lay on the floor of her cell moaning, and she urinated on herself. On Feb. 16, she had a bowel movement on the floor of her cell, and there's no record it was cleaned up that day, the Medical Review Board said. That afternoon, she was seen smashing cereal on her body and on the floor and screaming, "I have a sister."
When a deputy arrived for a shift that began at 11 p.m. Feb. 16, 2016, Cummings was again naked and lying on the floor of her cell or on her bunk, crying. The deputy, according to the state report, called her sergeant, said something was wrong with Cummings and asked to have the cell cleaned. When a maintenance worker arrived, Cummings could barely stand. She had lost all her strength, the deputy told state investigators. Cummings was placed in a wheelchair and rolled to the medical unit.
Apparently, Cummings then suffered the "medical event" that a Howard spokesman at the time said led to her being rushed to Buffalo General Medical Center – the nearest hospital for dire emergencies. She died in Erie County Medical Center on Feb. 21, 2016.
The State Attorney General's Office had been urged to become involved in the Cummings case under the authority outlined by an executive order Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed in 2015. It directed the attorney general “to investigate, and if warranted, prosecute certain matters involving the death of an unarmed civilian … caused by a law enforcement officer.” But the order was directed mainly at deaths that occur during the course of arrest by police.
The Attorney General's Office asked for time to examine the evidence, and it reached out to the Commission of Correction for additional authority to conduct an investigation that could draw in the medical personnel who, the commission said, failed to act. Some of those medical professionals are named by lawyers pressing the civil case against Erie County.