Video Of Michigan Man's Death In County Jail Draws FBI Scrutiny

Oct 13, 2015
Originally published on October 23, 2015 6:13 pm

The FBI is investigating the death last year of a 32-year-old man in a Michigan jail.

In March 2014, David Stojcevski was sentenced to 30 days in the Macomb County jail.

He died there a little more than two weeks later — despite being under 24-hour video monitoring for most of that time.

That video footage captured nearly every minute of the physical and mental breakdown preceding his death.

For Dafinka Stojcevski, David's mother, the anger is still raw. She is seeking justice for her son.

"They need to be punished for everything what they do (to) my son," she said during a protest on Oct. 10. "Shame on them!"

Friends, family and supporters protested outside the jail over the weekend. His family filed a wrongful death lawsuit earlier this year.

Stojcevski's official cause of death was acute drug withdrawal. He had struggled with opioid abuse. But it was withdrawal from benzodiazepines — drugs like Xanax and Klonopin — that killed him.

Stojcevski did have prescriptions for those drugs, as well as methadone. But according to his family, he never received the medications in jail, despite asking for them.

Family friend Jason Howard says it should have been obvious that Stojcevski was dying.

"He was in convulsions and, you know, in an observation cell, with a camera in it," Howard says. "And they just sat back and watched, with medical staff right down the hall."

Problem Of Denied Access To Medication

There are more than 200 hours of video from Stojcevski's stay in the jail's mental health unit.

Stojcevski suffered from seizures and dehydration. According to his family's lawsuit, he lost 50 pounds.

But Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel insists the video made public last month doesn't tell the whole story.

He calls allegations of wrongdoing "irresponsible."

"It's the actions of the officers that were working in that facility, that I know damn well did what they needed to do to care and tend to an individual," Hackel says.

The county already concluded its own internal investigation and found no wrongdoing. The FBI is now reviewing the case.

County officials won't comment on specifics, due to the pending lawsuit. So they won't answer questions about whether Stojcevski was denied access to his medication.

But experts say that happens often in county jails.

"That's a very common problem," says Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, who researches prison oversight.

"When inmates come from the streets into the facilities, they often don't have their medicines with them," she says.

Deitch says it's a big problem in a system where county jails are increasingly overwhelmed by inmates with substance abuse and mental health issues — often locked up for minor crimes.

"There are far too many people in these facilities that don't need to be there," she says.

How Poverty Plays A Role

And that's another point of outrage in this case: the reason Stojcevski was in jail to begin with.

At his March 2014 district court hearing, Stojcevski faced a choice: Pay $772 in fines stemming from two driving infractions, or go to jail.

Michael Steinberg, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, says that's a problem.

"When somebody's too poor to pay a fine, they're going to jail because of their indigency," Steinberg says.

After Stojcevski went to jail, a judge approve his release to a community service and monitoring program. But Steinberg says that never happened. Emails between corrections officials show why.

"He was apparently somewhat catatonic when they went to meet with him in jail to work out some alternative," he says.

There's widespread consensus that county jails aren't well-equipped to handle lots of people struggling with addiction and mental illness.

It's just not often that the public can see the consequences of that struggle play out on video.

Copyright 2017 Michigan Radio. To see more, visit Michigan Radio.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The death of a 32-year-old man in a Michigan jail has gotten the attention of the FBI. In March of 2014, David Stojcevski was sentenced to 30 days in the Macomb County Jail. He died 16 days later despite being under video surveillance for most of that time. That video captured nearly every minute of the physical and mental breakdown preceding his death. Sarah Cwiek of Michigan Radio reports.

SARAH CWIEK, BYLINE: David Stojcevski died here at the Macomb County Jail in Mount Clemens, Mich., more than a year ago. But for Dafinka Stojcevski, the anger is still raw.

DAVID STOJCEVSKI: Justice for my son David.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yes, that's why we're here.

STOJCEVSKI: They need to be punished for everything what they do for my son. Shame on them.

CWIEK: David Stojcevski's friends, family and supporters were here protesting this past weekend. His family filed a wrongful death lawsuit earlier this year. Stojcevski's official cause of death was acute drug withdrawal. He had struggled with opioid abuse, but it was withdrawal from benzodiazepines - drugs like Xanax and Klonopin - that killed him. Stojcevski did have prescriptions for those drugs, as well as methadone, but according to his family he never received the medications in jail despite asking for them. Family friend Jason Howard says it should've been obvious that Stojcevski was dying.

JASON HOWARD: He was in convulsions and - you know, in an observation cell with a camera in it. And they just sat back and watched with medical staff right down the hall.

CWIEK: There's more than 200 hours of video from Stojcevski's stay in the jail's mental health unit. Stojcevski suffered from seizures and dehydration. According to his family's lawsuit, he lost 50 pounds. But Macomb County executive, Mark Hackel, insists the video made public last month doesn't tell the whole story. He calls allegations of wrongdoing, quote, "irresponsible."

MARK HACKEL: It's the actions of the officers that were working in that facility that I know damn well did what they needed to do to care and tend to an individual.

CWIEK: The county already concluded its own internal investigation and found no wrongdoing. The FBI is now reviewing the case. County officials won't comment on specifics due to the pending lawsuit so they won't answer questions about whether Stojcevski was denied access to his medication. But experts say that does happen in county jails. Michele Deitch researches prison oversight at the University of Texas at Austin.

MICHELE DEITCH: That's a very common problem. When inmates come from the streets into the facilities, they often don't have their medicines with them.

CWIEK: Deitch says it's a big problem in a system where county jails are increasingly overwhelmed by inmates with substance abuse and mental health issues, often locked up for minor crimes.

DEITCH: There are far too many people in these facilities that don't need to be there.

CWIEK: And that's another point of outrage in this case - the reason Stojcevski was in jail to begin with. At his March 2014 district court hearing, Stojcevski faced a choice - pay $772 in fines stemming from two driving infractions or go to jail. Michael Steinberg, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Michigan, says that's a problem.

MICHAEL STEINBERG: The problem is when somebody's too poor to pay a fine, they're going to jail because of their indigency.

CWIEK: And after Stojcevski went to jail, a judge did OK his release to a community service and monitoring program. But Steinberg says that never happened. Emails between corrections officials show why.

STEINBERG: He was apparently somewhat catatonic when they went to meet with him in jail to work out some alternative.

CWIEK: There is widespread consensus that county jails aren't well-equipped to handle lots of people struggling with addiction and mental illness. It's just not that often that the public can see the consequences of that struggle play out on video. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Cwiek. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.