Families, activists want criminal investigation into Cobb inmate deaths

08/20/2020 - Marietta, Georgia - Family and friends of Kevil Wingo hold up signs during a press conference outside of the Cobb County Adult Detention Center in Marietta, Thursday, August 20, 2020. Kevil Wingo died while in custody at the detention center. His family is saying that more could have been done to prevent his death. (ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Credit: ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Community activists and family members of inmates who’ve died at the Cobb County Adult Detention Center held a town hall meeting Wednesday to continue to press for answers on why their loved ones didn’t return home alive.

The ACLU of Georgia, Cobb County Southern Christian Leadership Conference and several community groups gathered at Marietta’s Glover Park to request a criminal investigation into the deaths at the jail during Sheriff Neil Warren’s tenure.

In September, the Cobb District Attorney’s office requested the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia and Attorney General Chris Carr to name an appointee or office to work with federal prosecutors on the investigation. A spokeswoman said Thursday the Attorney General’s office is still reviewing that request.

On Aug. 27, Cobb Sheriff’s Office also asked the GBI to review its internal investigation into the death of one inmate.

The long-time Republican sheriff is facing a re-election battle against Democratic challenger Craig Owens, a major with the Cobb County Police Department. The Cobb County Sheriff’s Office has not responded to requests for comment about Wednesday’s town hall, which was held outdoors to allow for social distancing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In December 2019, the sheriff’s office responded to charges of inhumane conditions inside the jail, saying it “believes in the rights of individuals to gather and productively discuss issues of their choice.” In January, Warren said through a spokesman that the ACLU has attempted to “mislead, spin and or inflame issues that are baseless in fact but potentially harmful in their affect.” That was the last time Warren or his office has commented to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about inmate deaths and conditions at the jail.

At Wednesday’s town hall, members of the following organizations also read the names of the 52 detainees who’ve died while in custody since 2004: Cobb County branch of the NAACP, Cobb Coalition For Public Safety, Austell Community Task Force, Cobb Ministerial Alliance, Inc., Families Against Racism and Georgia chapter of Moms Of Black Boys United.

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Ben Williams, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said activists are vigilant in their desire for Warren and District Attorney Joyette Holmes to “investigate the wrongs that have taken place in the Cobb County Detention Center.”

“No one should go to the Detention Center waiting for his or her day in court and while they are there, they die,” he said.

The deaths have spurred an outpouring of community concern over jail conditions and a number of deaths advocates and families say could have been prevented. A series of town halls hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia and other organizations have been held on the subject over the past year.

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Timothy Gardner, the attorney representing the family of Kevil Wingo, who died last year in the jail after not receiving medical care, said the Cobb district attorney “passed the buck" when she requested federal prosecutors to look into the inmate deaths at the jail.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office, Gardner said, can only look into potential federal crimes committed against inmates, not murder, manslaughter or “the crimes that happened against Mr. Wingo.”

“That is not how this system works,” he said. “This family should not have to jump over hurdle after hurdle to get justice for their family member. No one would want that."

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Wingo’s family has filed a lawsuit last month in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia against Wellstar Health System, six nurses and three Cobb County Sheriff’s Office deputies. Wingo was pronounced dead Sept. 29, 2019, after he was found unresponsive in an isolation cell at the jail. An autopsy concluded the 36-year-old died from complications of a perforated gastric ulcer.

Since December 2018, nine detainees have died at the Cobb jail: Reginald Wilson, Bradley Emory, Jessie Myles, William Kocour, Steven Davis, Wingo, Christopher Hart, Stephanie McClendon and an unidentified woman whose cause of death has not been released.

Five of the men — Wilson, Myles, Kocour, Wingo and Emory — died of natural causes, autopsies concluded. Davis’s death was classified as undetermined. Hart died in November 2019 from a ruptured spleen, which occurred when he fell in his cell, according to a report released by the Cobb County Medical Examiner’s Office. His death was classified as accidental. McClendon, also known as Stephanie White, died from coronary artery disease.

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