Virginia Legislators Bell and Deeds Deserve Kudos, Governor McAuliffe, Attorney General Herring Deserve Criticism For Inmate’s Death


Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring at podium with Governor Terry McAuliffe standing behind him.  

(2-28-17) Republic Delegate Robert B. Bell from Albemarle and Democratic state Senator R. Creigh Deeds from Bath continue to demand better mental health services and protections in Virginia.

In the final hours of the legislative session Saturday night, they were able to get language passed that clarifies who is responsible for investigating suspicious inmate deaths in Virginia jails.

Their dogged, bipartisan determination should bring an end to the cowardly behavior shown by state officials surrounding the death of Jamycheal Mitchell, a 24 year-old African American whose lifeless body was found in the Hampton Roads Regional Jail in August 2015. Mitchell, who had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness, had been jailed for allegedly stealing $5.05 worth of snack food from a convenience store. A judge ordered him sent to a state hospital to be restored to competency, but his paperwork was tossed into a drawer and not found until six days after his death.

By that time, Mitchell had spent 101 days in jail. An autopsy showed he had died from a heart attack brought on by starvation. He lost 46 pounds even though he was supposedly under multiple daily checks by correctional officers and a daily health check by a nurse.

The horror of his death was compounded when state officials claimed they either did not have jurisdiction to fully investigate what happened or dodged doing a credible investigation. Instead, they happily accepted assurances from jail officials who declared themselves innocent of any wrongdoing. Not surprisingly, that internal jail probe has never been made public.

At least three state agencies and Virginia’s Governor Terry McAuliffe contributed to this debacle. They include Virginia Attorney General’s office, the Office of State Inspector General, and the disAbility Law Center of Virginia.

According to Richmond Times Dispatch reporter Sarah Kleiner, who has been relentless, along with her colleague, K. Burnell Evans, in demanding answers about Mitchell’s death, a last minute compromise was reached that will put the Board of Corrections in charge of investigating  inmate deaths such as Mitchell’s.

“I think the public was just screaming for some accountability,” the newspaper quoted state Sen. Deeds saying.

He’s right. But clarifying who will investigate suspicious deaths is not enough. State officials who dropped the ball also should be held accountable and that list includes Governor McAuliffe, Attorney General Mark Herring, and Colleen Miller, the executive director of the disAbility Law Center. Two others who were heavily criticized for their handling of the Mitchell case are no longer in charge. Jail Superintendent Col. David Simons retired and Inspector General June Jennings has been ousted thanks largely to Delegate Bell.

Incredibly, her demotion angered Gov. McAuliffe  who went on the radio to claim she wasn’t reappointed because of “sexism.”


According to a complaint about Jennings filed by three whistleblowers, her office did not immediately send investigators to visit the jail but instead performed a “desk review” of Mitchell’s death, relying on reports sent to her by the jail and state mental health department. In their complaint, the whistleblowers claimed that 80 percent of the Mitchell investigation was completed from behind a desk.

Not only did the governor attempt to appoint Jennings for another term, his office also dismissed the whistleblower’s complaint without ever interviewing any of the three who filed it.

And he did this while claiming in interviews that he was deeply concerned about Mitchell’s death and wanted it fully investigated.

Attorney General Mark Herring also should be embarrassed for his role in the Mitchell case. According to an April 24th article in the Richmond Times Dispatch:

“One of the state agencies charged with investigating the death of Jamycheal Mitchell in his jail cell in Portsmouth last year did not interview court employees responsible for his case because the state Attorney General’s Office intervened on the employees’ behalf.”

This is the same office that possibly sat on embarrassing information about Mitchell’s death for four months while the previous legislative session was being held, releasing it only after legislators had gone home.

After a second questionable death in the jail, both Herring and the governor did ask the U.S. Justice Department to investigate, but they took that step only after investigative reporters kept turning up embarrassing facts and mental health advocates clamored for action.

The disAbility Law Center, a protection and advocacy agency created by Congress to protect persons with mental disorders from being abused in institutions also should be ashamed. The best its director Colleen Miller could muster was a letter to the governor  telling him that he needed to make certain that another Mitchell-like death shouldn’t happen.

She issued her letter after declining to sign onto a letter sent to the Justice Department asking for a investigation of Mitchell’s death that was endorsed by the Virginia and national offices of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health America, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the D.C.-based Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law.

Because of the inept handling of Mitchell’s death by state officials, the public’s best chance of actually finding out how a person with mental illness was allowed to starve himself in jail could come when a $60 million wrongful death suit filed by the family goes to trial  (if that day ever comes) or when the U.S. Department of Justice releases its investigative report.

In a bit of good news, the state has awarded nearly $1 million to the jail to improve services at Hampton Roads. But I’m skeptical those funds would have been awarded if not for the public outcry that came only because investigative reporters from several news organization would not let this story die and advocacy groups demanded answers.

Based on their actions, it’s easy to imagine that Gov. McAuliffe, Attorney General Herring, then-Inspector General June Jennings and the disAbility Law Center’s Colleen Miller would have been satisfied accepting the jail’s internal report and avoiding any deeper probes.

Thankfully, we have Delegate Ron Bell and state Senator Creigh Deeds continuing to stand up for Virginians with mental health issues. They deserve our respect, thanks and most of all our support for being true friends of our loved ones.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.