Derek Hutchinson knew something was wrong while he was sitting in a King County jail 18 months ago. He had such intense abdominal pain that he couldn’t eat and he could barely stand. So he told the jail’s guards that he needed to be transported to a hospital. But he was dismissed as if he was faking an injury.
Except Hutchinson’s pain was all too real. A day after he asked for help, Hutchinson was dead. An ulcer in his intestine had ruptured and sent him into a cardiac arrest. It was a preventable death. Now Hutchinson’s partner and her attorney are demanding that the county launch an investigation.
“Had Derek gotten an emergency surgery at the time that his ulcer started perforating, he very well may be alive today. Put simply: had jail staff not been involved in Mr. Hutchinson’s care, he would have been free to seek the care that he knew he needed and asked for,” said Corey Guilmette, McSherry's attorney.
The county already has a process for conducting investigations on deaths like Hutchinson's. County law requires that an inquest hearing, a type of public fact-finding tribunal, is held anytime a member of law enforcement is involved in a person’s death. Local jail staff are considered members of law enforcement according to the inquest hearing's rules, so Hutchinson’s death while in the care of the King County Maleng Regional Justice Center appears to fit into the inquest hearing's rules.
King County Executive Dow Constantine is responsible for calling for each individual inquest hearing, but he has yet to do so in the case of Hutchinson. Guilmette formally asked for an inquest hearing in a letter to Constantine on Monday. A spokesperson for Constantine did not return The Stranger’s request for comment.
Hutchinson was living on the streets of Seattle with his partner of 15 years, Jennifer McSherry, at the time of his arrest. McSherry said through tears at a press conference on Monday that the couple were on the verge of finally getting an apartment when Hutchinson was booked into jail in September of 2017.
“Derek was my soulmate. For 15 years, he took care of me out there on the street when we were homeless and we were looking forward to getting an apartment. He should be there with me, but he is not,” McSherry said. “I need to know why they let someone like Derek die when it shouldn’t have happened.”
Hutchinson was arrested after police officers saw him using drugs near an overpass in Seattle and, after checking his identity, saw that he had a warrant for missing parole. When he was booked on September 21, 2017, he appeared to be in adequate health, only complaining of an old hernia, according to the county’s death investigation shared with The Stranger by Guilmette. But his health deteriorated as he sat in jail, and four days later, on September 25, at 5:20 a.m.,he asked for help. The officers originally denied his request until he laid down on the floor. When a nurse came, they diagnosed him with symptoms of “heroin withdrawal,” according to the investigation.
Guilmette, who is also an attorney with the nonprofit Public Defender Association, said the jail’s medical staff should have realized that Hutchinson was dealing with something other than just withdrawal.
“It would be very unusual to see someone who has heroin withdrawal symptoms that includes severe abdominal pain that are intensifying at day four. Typically they tend to sort of get better after day four,” Guilmette said.
Jail staff “believed he was faking his injury” and “offered him no medical treatment” that morning, according to Guilmette.
By 7:38 p.m. that evening, Hutchinson had collapsed onto the floor of his cell suffering from cardiac arrest, according to the death investigation. Guilmette said there's medical evidence that Hutchinson's ulcer could have perforated as early as that morning, resulting in intense pain for the 43-year-old.
“It seems likely that the time he collapsed or perhaps even before, the contents of his intestines were leaking into his abominable cavity, causing a very painful, slow descent into cardiac arrest,” Guilmette said.
Guilmette said an inquest hearing would help the county better understand if the jail’s policies were followed or if they should be changed to prevent future deaths like Hutchinson’s.
“I would shudder to think that the hospital would say ‘sorry we’re not treating you, we think you are faking it.’ The only time that happens is in jail, and that should not be the case,” Guilmette said.
McSherry said she received a call at 2 a.m. on September 26 after Hutchinson had been transferred to the hospital. By the time she got to Hutchinson’s room, his condition had already deteriorated beyond her being able to speak with him.
“I thought it was his hernia, I thought his hernia had burst, until I got to the hospital and saw him,” McSherry said. “I got to be with him when he died… He couldn’t speak, he was all hooked up to machine. They were breathing for him and he was pretty much gone.”