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Editorial: A welcome and necessary investigation into inmate death

This much we know about the 2016 death of inmate India Cummings: She spent her final days speaking gibberish on the floor of her cell in the Erie County Holding Center, lying in her urine.

We also know this: The state Commission of Correction issued a report in June that called Cummings’ death a homicide due to medical neglect.

Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, who oversees the Holding Center, disputed the report’s findings, telling Erie County legislators in July, “Why are you so willing to accept as true what is no more than an opinion?”

It’s no opinion, but rather a disgraceful fact, that 24 inmates have died in either the Holding Center downtown or the Correctional Facility in Alden since Howard became sheriff in 2005.

And here’s a new fact: The office of state Attorney General Barbara Underwood is opening an investigation into Cummings’ death, a very welcome development.

“I believe the attorney general will see what a horrific situation we have with our Holding Center,” said April N.M. Baskin, D-Buffalo, who chairs the county Legislature’s Public Safety Committee.

Baskin has been calling for a criminal probe into Cummings’ death, as has District Attorney John J. Flynn. Flynn’s office is unable to conduct the probe itself because his office employs the wife of a jail sergeant.

The state’s top cop is answering the call.

“We’re committed to conducting an independent, comprehensive, and fair investigation,” the Attorney General’s Office said.

As an inmate, the 27-year-old Cummings was difficult and potentially dangerous to Holding Center personnel in her 17 days there. She was arrested in February 2016 after carjacking a Ford Taurus, punching the driver and dragging him out of the car. She reportedly was high on synthetic marijuana at the time.

While in the Holding Center infirmary, Cummings argued with the medical staff, then punched a jail deputy when returning to her cell. Authorities said the deputy suffered a concussion.

She was trouble, but not so much to earn a death sentence.

The Commission of Correction’s Medical Review Board determined that Cummings would be alive if she had received adequate medical care in the Holding Center.

“The cause of her death,” the review board said, “was a massive pulmonary embolism resulting from acute renal failure, rhabdomyolysis (tissue breakdown), dehydration and fracture of the humerus; and the manner of her death was homicide by medical neglect.”

The board, a panel of doctors and lawyers, was unsparing in its critique of how Holding Center personnel treated Cummings.

“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 board said.

The AG’s Special Investigations and Prosecutions Unit will conduct the probe, under authority of an executive order from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo 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.” The order was directed mainly at deaths that occur during arrests but is being widened.

Most important is for a credible report to be produced about Cummings’ death and, if criminal negligence is found, for those who are responsible to be held to account.

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