Jennifer McSherry wants to know why her partner of 15 years died a preventable death after being booked into King County jail.
Jennifer McSherry wants to know why her partner of 15 years died a preventable death after being booked into King County jail. Lester Black

The jail staff thought Derek Hutchinson was faking it. When the 43-year-old complained of intense abdominal pain just before 9 am on September 25, 2017, the staff at the King County Maleng Regional Justice Center refused to transfer him to a hospital. Eleven hours later he passed out onto the floor of his cell; the following morning he was pronounced dead, killed by a ruptured ulcer in his intestine.

Could jail staff have prevented Hutchinson’s death by responding to his complaints quicker? Or was Hutchinson’s death simply a tragic medical episode?

Those are the questions that an inquest hearing, a type of fact-finding tribunal, could answer. It’s King County’s official tool for investigating deaths that involve cops or employees at jails, but no inquest has been called in this case more than 18 months after Hutchinson’s death. And King County Executive Dow Constantine, who has the authority to call for an inquest, has not committed to opening the investigation.

Alex Fryer, a spokesperson for Constantine, said the facts of the case were still being reviewed and the executive was waiting to hear a recommendation from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

“The executive will get a recommendation from the prosecuting attorney and then the executive will make a decision,” Fryer said.

But the prosecuting attorney’s office told me that they have not reviewed the case and have no current plans to do so. Mark Larson, the chief of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Criminal Division, told me Thursday that neither a law enforcement agency nor Constantine’s office has sent the case to him.

“I am happy to review the case but nobody has brought it to me yet,” Larson said. “I don’t know that that’s a necessary step either though. In this case, I’m pretty sure the executive has the materials from whatever happened in the King County jail.”

Larson said he didn’t think his office’s review was “essential” because Constantine already has full authority to call for an inquest.

Fryer said the executive’s decision hinges on how involved law enforcement was in Hutchinson’s death.

“The question is, was there a law enforcement officer involved? An inquest doesn’t just look at any death, it specifically is supposed to look at a death when law enforcement is involved. I think that’s the part that we are reviewing,” Fryer said.

Hutchinson’s death is now one of over a dozen deaths involving law enforcement in King County that have yet to be investigated by an inquest hearing. Constantine put a hold on the inquest process in January of 2018 to update the rules of the process. Community and legal rights groups had called the old system unfair towards families of people killed by cops, so Constantine rewrote the rules in an update that the criminal justice community has been largely happy with.

Fryer said Constantine’s office is now in the process of hiring staff to run the new inquest hearings and expects that his office will announce a schedule of hearings “in the next few weeks.”

Constantine has already called for inquests in the deaths of five individuals: Isaiah Obet, Damarius D. Butts, Eugene D. Nelson, Tommy Le, and Charleena Lyles. Fryer said there are eight additional deaths that are being reviewed by the Prosecuting Attorney’s office.

“Once the process restarts, these completed investigations and recommendations will be transmitted to the Executive’s Office,” Fryer said in an e-mail.

Fryer said those eight additional deaths that are pending review by the Prosecuting Attorney’s office include Robert Lightfeather, Curtis Tade, Jason Seavers, Karla Gamez-Talavera, Mitchell Nelson, Marcelo Castellano, Joseph Peppan, and Derek Hutchinson.

Larson told me that his office is going to review the first seven of those deaths, but he reiterated that Derek Hutchinson’s death is not currently being reviewed by his office.

“Those cases/investigations came in to us in the ordinary course, but we held on to them since the inquest process was held in abeyance," Larson said in an e-mail. "As the exec is now staffing up the new inquest process, we are moving forward."

Larson said he suspected that Hutchinson’s death was not sent to his office because the law enforcement agency that reviewed the inmate's death, which in Hutchinson’s case was King County’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, did not think the case qualified for an inquest hearing.

“Back in 2017 it is likely that people looked at it and said it wasn’t an inquestable event under the rules that existed then, and that’s why it maybe didn’t come to me then. I’m speculating,” Larson said.

Corey Guilmette, an attorney with the Public Defender Association, is calling for an inquest into Hutchinson's death.
Corey Guilmette, an attorney with the Public Defender Association, is calling for an inquest into Hutchinson's death. Lester Black
The new rules around inquest hearings require hearings in deaths that involve “a member of any law enforcement agency within King County.” The law defines all commissioned officers and non-commissioned staff of all local and state police forces, jails, and corrections agencies. Because Hutchinson’s case involved medical decisions made by jail staff, an inquest should be called, according to Corey Guilmette, an attorney for Hutchinson’s partner Jennifer McSherry.

“Jail staff denied Mr. Hutchinson’s request to be taken to the hospital, preventing him from receiving the care and surgery that would have been needed to save his life. Had jail staff not been involved, and Mr. Hutchinson was free to seek the care that he knew he needed, he very well may be alive today,” Guilmette wrote in a letter to Constantine on March 11.

Guilmette told me in an e-mail that he has not yet heard a response from Constantine’s office but was not planning on taking additional action.

“We remain confident in the inquest reforms that Executive Constantine thoughtfully developed in consultation with community and law enforcement. We expect that Executive Constantine will call an inquest in Derek's death, as required under the Executive Order he signed in October 2018,” Guilmette said in a letter.