Another Dubious Death at the King County Jail

Details of the incident, based on public records and interviews, fit into a three-year pattern of preventable deaths at the jail.

Slender, dark-haired Karen Jane Matthew was brought into the downtown King County Jail around 1 a.m. on Sept. 16 last year after being arrested for selling rock cocaine on Aurora Avenue. Over the next 30 hours, the 51-year-old inmate with a long, mostly misdemeanor record, including drugs and prostitution, lost consciousness and split open her head in a fall; told a cellmate she was “dope sick” and had lost control of some bodily functions; drank from a cup of dangerous jail chemical disinfectant left in her cell; and vomited and made gagging sounds throughout the night. She was found dead the next day.

The official cause given by the King County Medical Examiner was “acute combined opiate [heroin] and cocaine intoxication,” a condition apparently undetected during the jail booking process, hospital and infirmary visits, and her brief confinement. Though both a jail captain and an intake officer say mistakes were made—Matthew might not have even been searched for drugs during booking—the jail “has not changed any procedures due to Matthew’s death,” says Maj. William Hayes, spokesperson for the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention. Based on the medical examiner’s findings, the public health department, which treats inmates and runs the jail infirmary, considers the death an accident. Health department spokesperson James Apa says medical privacy laws preclude him from commenting directly about the case.

But details of the incident, based on public records and interviews, fit into a three-year pattern of preventable deaths at King County Jail. The case is also similar to the death of inmate Lynn Dale Iszley, two months before Matthew’s, which is now under county review to determine if jail or medical staffers were negligent and whether the county is liable for damages.

Matthew’s death occurred a month after Department of Justice investigators completed an on-site inspection of the jail. The feds, citing civil-rights violations at the jail, said in a blistering report that at least five deaths since 2005 were preventable and that inmates faced a “grave risk of harm” when incarcerated in Seattle.

County officials claimed the review focused on “past practices” and suggested they’d already resolved the major problems cited. But Matthew’s death contradicts that claim. The DOJ and the county are continuing to privately negotiate, according to a county official familiar with the proceedings who did not wish to be named, and the feds could end up demanding daily monitoring of jail custody and medical procedures by an outside agency. The DOJ last week had no comment on Matthew’s death.

An unemployed transient from Snohomish County, Matthew was arrested late that Saturday evening after being spotted allegedly selling drugs outside an Aurora motel. Heroin and crack cocaine were later found in a motel room she shared with a boyfriend.

It wasn’t until she was put in a holding cell at the North Precinct that an officer discovered a small coke rock in her mouth, and made her spit it out. An hour later, she was processed into the downtown jail for drug possession and three warrants including a minor assault.

It’s unclear whether Matthew was ever strip-searched. According to documents obtained by Seattle Weekly, the officer who processed Matthew at her Sept. 16 jail booking later admitted “the strip search form for Matthew was marked as no strip search required, even though one had been [required],” indicating the wrongly marked form led him to believe she wasn’t to be strip-searched. Because he thought no strip search was required, Matthew possibly “was not searched at all,” he reported. The officer said he had “just started working [at intake] and was still trying to learn the process for accepting inmates into the jail.”

At the bottom of the officer’s report, a captain added a handwritten note to a jail major: “This is not an excuse, we on 3rd shift lost a large portion of our [intake] booking crew, we are trying to train new staff officers in this area. I am sure we will make more mistakes, the only thing I can say is we are currently and in the future try [sic] to improve…”

Matthew could have ingested or injected a potentially fatal drug dose at the motel; she could have swallowed other rocks in the police car ride to the precinct; or, by not being searched, she could have carried secreted drugs into the jail and taken them there.

She was still going through the booking process when she fell asleep or passed out while sitting in a holding cell around 4:30 a.m. She fell face-first and lacerated her forehead badly enough to be taken to Harborview Medical Center for stitches, then was returned to jail later that morning.

Jail and medical documents do not indicate whether Matthew discussed her symptoms at the hospital and, because of medical-privacy laws, the hospital will not say if staff was aware of her life-threatening condition. She fell asleep on a floor mattress around noon. Her cellmate later awakened her and discovered Matthew had soiled herself—Matthew explained she was “dope sick” and not in control of some functions. A custody officer supplied clean linen and a uniform, along with a spray bottle of ammonium chloride disinfectant.

Afterward, Matthew’s cellmate poured about four ounces of the spray bottle’s contents into a cup for cleanup use in case Matthew became sick again, but apparently didn’t inform her lethargic bunkmate. After a meal, and an infirmary visit during which medical staff checked up on her laceration (but apparently not her general health), Matthew racked out. In the middle of the night, she groggily arose for a drink of water, but used the cup containing the disinfectant. No one knows how much of it she drank.

According to its labeling, the cleaner can be harmful or fatal if swallowed—a condition worsened if the victim vomits the caustic chemical back up her system. Matthew did vomit, her cellmate recalls, and made gagging, dry-heaving sounds during the night. Apparently neither inmate contacted officers. Come daylight, Matthew was unresponsive. A Medic One crew declared her dead at 8 a.m. on Sept. 17th, about 30 hours after she was booked.

The medical examiner concluded it was the undetected drug intoxication, not the ingested disinfectant, that killed Matthew. The jail’s investigation did not specifically address how the disinfectant became readily available or how Matthew’s condition went unnoticed by staff at the jail and hospital.

The circumstances were similar to the July 19 death of small-time drug user Iszley, 48—a death, according to an investigation by the King County Ombudsman, that could have been prevented. Like Matthew, Iszley was a heroin user, had become ill in his cell, and his true condition wasn’t diagnosed. Though seen by a doctor and nurses over a three-day period, he was being treated for heroin withdrawal even after he said he’d kicked the drug and felt his real problem was alcohol withdrawal.

He became violently ill in his cell—”I think my liver exploded,” he told a corrections officer—and complained for another day about chest pains, dehydration, and being barely able to stand. The ombudsman, citing a review by medical experts, found that “professionally trained medical providers [at the jail] should have recognized and acted on Mr. Iszley’s symptoms that indicated the presence of illness more acute than withdrawal.” Like Matthew, Iszley was found dead on his cell mattress around 8 a.m.

The medical examiner determined he died from an undetected perforation of the ulcer that allowed more than a half-gallon of fecal matter to leak into his abdomen, leading to a toxic fatal infection and painful death.

Senior deputy ombudsman Jon Stier says that, unlike the Iszley case, no family member has filed a complaint with his office in the Matthew death—but if her family wishes to do so, the office would look into it, he says. (Matthew’s parents told the Weekly they don’t want to comment at the moment.) An inquest into Matthew’s death has not yet been scheduled, says King County Prosecutor’s spokesperson Dan Donohoe. A court hearing to decide when an inquest will be held in the Iszley death is set for this Friday.