I know what the world has done to my brother and how narrowly he has survived it and I know, which is much worse, and this is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it. One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
James Baldwin, A Letter To My Nephew, December 1, 1962
When I received notice today (April 23, 2019) the Pima County Medical Examiner had released a copy of the autopsy report of David Maxwell, the Black man killed during an alleged “scuffle” with a Pima County Adult Detention Officer on February 14, 2019, I was hopeful answers would at last be provided regarding the cause of his death. Instead, the eleven page report gave a very officious accounting of all the procedures performed as part of the autopsy but ultimately concluded anti-climatically:
- Undetermined cause of death.
There were and still are so many questions about, “what happened to David Maxwell?” left unanswered. Granted, it is not uncommon for people engaged in a physical altercation to die. One of the combatants may have used too much force, the victim may have hit his head or died as a result of an underlying health condition triggered by the physical altercation. However, a relatively-healthy 53-year-old man does not normally “just die” (for no apparent reason) during a physical altercation with another person. This is the conclusion reached by Dr. Gregory Hess, the Forensic Pathologist (Pima County Medical Examiner), who performed the autopsy on February 15, 2019, in the presence of forensic technicians, two Pima County Sheriff’s Deputies, and two crime scene technicians from the Sheriff’s Department. What is strange is the autopsy was performed without anyone from the Tucson Police Department (TPD) Homicide Unit present. If Maxwell’s death was the result of a physical altercation with a correctional officer, as alleged, the matter should have immediately been transferred to an outside agency, TPD Homicide, so a thorough independent investigation could be conducted. Certainly local news reports indicated TPD Homicide was on the scene conducting a separate investigation into the incident.
Although the toxicology screening on Maxwell wasn’t received until February 18, 2019, the autopsy report was completed by February 21, 2019. In other words, the report could have been released to the public anytime after February 21st. The Pima County taxpayers and voters have a right to know all pertinent information about the death of an in-custody detainee at the hands of a jail correctional officer. Failure to release the autopsy report in a timely manner kept the facts and circumstances surrounding Maxwell’s death shrouded in secrecy.
The stated mission of the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner is to provide accurate, timely, compassionate and professional death investigations for the citizens of Pima County, Arizona. If that is indeed the mission, Dr. Hess failed David Maxwell and he failed all citizens who care about the welfare of the men and women being held n-custody at the Pima County Jail. Pretrial detention is not suppose to be a death sentence. Prior to his death, Maxwell was being held in pre-trial detention awaiting trial. Although he had not been convicted of an offense –he had already spent over a year in jail. Sadly, the wrongs committed against Maxwell continue to stack-up. Even in death, he has been written off as a person whose life had little value. It is obvious no real effort was made to unravel the mystery of his death. The autopsy report was a final insult to Maxwell, a man the Pima County Superior Court, prosecutors and attorneys forgot about , permitting him to languish in jail until he was killed. Now it appears, the Sheriff’s Department wants his death to be forgotten, too.
The fact Black people must seek justice from a profoundly anti-Black legal system is a paradox that frustrates and demoralizes all those unfortunate enough to become ensnared by it. Still, the fight for fairness, for justice rages on because Black people know the value of their humanity regardless of what system actors think of them.
David Maxwell’s life had value and the failure of the medical examiner to make definitive findings as to his cause of death is an unacceptable outcome. The TSCCBF will therefore ask the Pima County Board of Supervisors to hire an independent forensic pathologist to conduct a more thorough investigation into his death. Attached is a link to a copy. of the Maxwell autopsy report which has been saved as a Google document:
Additional public records (673 pages) are expected to be received from the Pima County Sheriff’s Department. Once these documents have been reviewed, an effort will be made to give the public access to them as well.