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Case of NYC inmate 'baked to death' in overheated jail cell probed

NEW YORK--Investigators are probing how a mentally ill, homeless New York City veteran died last month in a jail cell that city officials told The Associated Press had overheated to at least 37 Celsius, apparently because of malfunctioning equipment.

Acting Department of Correction Commissioner Mark Cranston said in a statement Wednesday that investigators were looking at the circumstances surrounding Jerome Murdough's “unfortunate death.”

“While we cannot comment on the facts surrounding his death while the investigation is underway, preliminary information suggests there were unusually high temperatures in Mr. Murdough's cell,” he said.

Four city officials told the AP that the 56-year-old former Marine was on anti-psychotic and anti-seizure medication, which may have made him more vulnerable to heat. He also apparently did not open a small vent in his cell, as other inmates did, to let in cool air.

“He basically baked to death,” said one of the officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not permitted to discuss specifics of the case.

The medical examiner's office said an autopsy was inconclusive and that more tests were needed to determine Murdough's exact cause of death. But the officials, all with detailed knowledge of the case, say initial indications from the autopsy and investigation point to extreme dehydration or heat stroke.

The department said it had addressed two contributing factors an outside consultant identified as causing the excess heat. It also said temperature checks immediately after the death revealed that several cells nearby were over 26 Celsius.

Murdough was arrested Feb. 7 on a misdemeanor trespassing charge for sleeping in an enclosed stairwell on the roof of a public housing building in Harlem and sent to Rikers after being unable to post a US$2,500 bail, court records show. He was found dead in his cell in a special unit for inmates with mental illnesses a week later, in the early hours of Feb. 15, the officials said.

Advocates for mentally ill inmates say Murdough's death represents the failure of the city's justice system on almost every level: by arresting him instead of finding him help, by setting bail at a prohibitive US$2,500 and by not supervising him closely in what is supposed to be a special observation unit for inmates with mental illnesses.

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Alma Murdough and her daughter Cheryl Warner hold a photo of Murdough's son, at her home in the Queens borough of New York on March 12.

(AP)

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