On the Death of Raynette Turner

Raynette Turner's death in a "cage" -- commonly called a "cell," or a "detention facility," or a "holding place," to mask the grim reality -- is symbolic of the massive deprivation of human liberty that our society inflicts on other humans, and which may be the most serious pathology of our legal system, and one that continues to get worse.
08/06/2015 12:29 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2016

Raynette Turner, a 42-year-old mother of eight, died inside cell No. 29 in the Mount Vernon city jail last Monday, July 27th. Turner's death is the fifth death of a young woman of color in police custody in the U.S. in the month of July, and, as with the other deaths, has not been fully explained. But there is absolutely no question that Raynette Turner's death was clearly avoidable, if only the Mount Vernon police had acted with good judgment, instead of inflicting on her mindless and needless suffering . The case is being investigated by the State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman pursuant to Governor Andrew Cuomo's recent Executive Order authorizing the attorney general to investigate and, if necessary, prosecute police-related deaths of unarmed civilians.

Turner was arrested on Saturday afternoon for allegedly stealing $40 dollars of crabs legs from a local restaurant. After she was taken to the jail, she was processed and could easily have been given a desk appearance ticket -- a summons -- to appear in court at a future date. Police do this often for minor, non-violent offenses, and shoplifting, a misdemeanor, would reasonably qualify. Moreover, most reasonable people, especially reasonable police officers, would believe that a person's liberty should be the norm, and detention prior to trial, or prior to any official fact-finding of cause for the arrest, should be the exception, and have to be justified by substantial reasons. So why did the Mount Vernon police officers place Raynette Turner in cell No. 29, instead of allowing her to go home to her children? Is it that far-fetched to speculate that she would have been released if she were a white woman with children at home?

Also, the police had to know that by depriving Raynette Turner of her liberty, she would remain incarcerated at least until the city court reconvened the following Monday. To be sure, although there is no fixed rule that a local judge could not be summoned to arraign Turner that Saturday afternoon -- indeed, all three Mount Vernon city judges live in the city and would likely have conducted a brief arraignment -- the police apparently did not think to call a judge. Why? Police certainly are aware that local judges are available all weekend to sign court orders, if necessary. So, if the police could contact a judge, and a prosecutor, to get a warrant, why could they not contact a judge to enable a young woman to go home to her family? Moreover, and curiously, New York State's Office of Court Administration issued a statement that Turner's name had never even been placed on the court calendar for Monday's session. Indeed, according to the District Attorney's office, no complaint had even been filed. Is it possible that a person could be accused of a crime and confined in jail without a complaint ever being issued?

How did Raynette Turner die? Two of the other young women who died in police custody in July -- Sandra Bland, in Texas, and Kindra Chapman, in Alabama -- allegedly took their own life. The cause of the deaths of the other two women -- Joyce Curnell, in South Carolina, and Ralkina Jones, in Cleveland -- is also under investigation. The public account of Turner's death -- and there has been no official determination -- is that she had medical problems, including hypertension and bariatric surgery, that may have caused her death. Indeed, the Mount Vernon police knew of her medical problems; she complained about not feeling well, she was nauseous and vomited, and was taken by the police to the Montefiore Hospital where she was treated, and then returned to the jail. Why, if the police knew she was ill, did they return her to her cell, rather than send her home to her husband and children? Could the police have reasonably believed that continuing to forcibly detain her under the circumstances of her fragile health was preferable to sending her home to her family? What reasons compelled the police to keep her confined?

The central question for Attorney General Schneiderman is whether the Mount Vernon police, by their actions and inactions, caused Raynette Turner's death? This question, tragically, is a familiar one: police have caused the deaths of nearly 700 people in the U.S. since January 2015. And if from the facts it can be determined that the police were responsible for her death, then the next question would be whether they acted with the required state of mental culpability to support a homicide charge - either intentional, recklessness, or grossly negligent?

The death of Raynette Turner, together with the recent deaths of the four other young women of color in the U.S., should be seen in a much larger context. As one commentator has noted: "The contemporary system of American policing and incarceration puts human beings in cages at rates unprecedented in American history and unparalleled in the modern world." It is astonishing that U.S. society -- especially lawmakers, courts, and lawyers -- has never closely examined whether the practice of putting more and more people in cages makes society safer, and actually reduces crime. Nor have we ever closely examined the incredible amount of suffering this practice inflicts on society, and the benefits we achieve from this phenomenon. Raynette Turner's death in a "cage" -- commonly called a "cell," or a "detention facility," or a "holding place," to mask the grim reality -- is symbolic of the massive deprivation of human liberty that our society inflicts on other humans, and which may be the most serious pathology of our legal system, and one that continues to get worse.