Henderson County Woman Dies in Jail

Jul 24th, 2008 | By | Category: Henderson County, In The News, Pretrial Detention

By Malena Ogles, Monday, July 26, 2010, Tyler Morning Telegraph

ATHENS — An investigation into the death of a Henderson County Jail inmate was turned over to the Texas Rangers following allegations of medical neglect and mistreatment at the hands of jail officials.

The sheriff’s office denies any wrongdoing.

According to jail records, Debra Lee Newton, 56, of Athens, was booked into the Henderson County Jail on Feb. 18 on charges of possession of a controlled substance and was released on her own recognizance April 25. She died 10 days later at East Texas Medical Center in Athens.

Ms. Newton was a familiar face at the jail with charges for drug possession, unlawful use of a motor vehicle, burglary of a habitation and driving while intoxicated dating back to 1989.

Henderson County Sheriff’s Lt. Pat McWilliams said a report by a Dallas television news station that aired Tuesday alleged Ms. Newton was in the custody of the sheriff’s office at the time of her death.

“He aired this report and came up with two witnesses who in essence charged us with abuse by medical neglect,” McWilliams said. “Her book-in sheet shows when she was booked. Their contention was that it looked like a cover up.”

Two anonymous sources claiming to be former cellmates of Newton during her incarceration told the television station that they were shocked after witnessing Newsom go into a “violent seizure” on April 23, and that no doctor or nurse came to her aid until 24 hours later.

“I can’t answer what motivates inmates of any institution to come up with stuff like this,” McWilliams said. “We totally deny it and look forward to the Attorney General releasing the records, or the rangers completing their investigation.”

After hearing the allegations against them, McWilliams said the sheriff’s office contacted the Henderson County District Attorney’s office, which requested an investigation by the Texas Rangers.

Sheriff’s officials assert that a lot of the confusion surrounding Newton’s death stems from Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Acts in place, which prohibit the release of personal medical information.

“They (the television station) have made a request for copies of her files under the privacy act. Because those records contain medical information, our attorney turned over the decision over to the Attorney General’s office,” McWilliams said.

According to the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, a law enforcement agency is required to file a custodial death report with the attorney general if a person dies while in the agency’s custody.

McWilliams said a death report was not filed because Ms. Newton not in police custody when she died.

The jail does not have a written policy to handle sick patients, but does have nurses on staff and a doctor who routinely visits the 280 inmates.

Jail records state Newsom was in general population at the Henderson County Jail until April 23 when she began having “flu-like symptoms.” At that time she was removed from general population to a confinement cell.

McWilliams said that the next day at around 2 p.m. a doctor came and visited Newsom in her cell and ordered her moved to the hospital.

According to jail records, on April 25, Newsom’s bond was reduced to $5,000 by 3rd District Court Judge Mark Calhoon and she was released on personal recognizance. McWilliams added that Newsom was not conscious and a lieutenant and attention officer at the jail signed the paper in her absence.

Judge Calhoon was unable to be reached for comment.

McWilliams agreed Newsom’s case was handled somewhat differently, but said there was no cover-up.

“We know she was low risk and releasing her on a personal recognizance bond saved us from having to put a guard on her 24 hours a day,” McWilliams said.

Typically, when an inmate is released on recognizance, the bond reduction is signed by a justice of the peace.

“Because of the circumstances of the patient’s condition, a district judge signed this bond,” he said. “She was hospitalized and sedated at the time.”

Authorities were unable to contact any family members and Newsom’s body was released to Cooper Funeral Home and later cremated.

The television report also alleged a tie between the recent retirement announcement of longtime Henderson County Sheriff Ronny Brownlow and Ms. Newsom’s death.

McWilliams added that any accusations that Brownlow is resigning from his position in light of the recent allegations are absurd.

“He’s a sheriff who has had a lengthy and honorable career and to go out with a shadow over him is just not right. We being members of the sheriff’s office welcome this investigation.”

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2 Comments to “Henderson County Woman Dies in Jail”

  1. mike nation says:

    this could very well be a cover up just like the cover up in Seagoville Tx back in 2000. my girl friend at the time, miss Rhonda Mitchell, supposedly hung her self on a 14 inch phone cord. i was in prison at the time on a dwi charge and could not investigate the incident, plus miss Mitchell also had an astranged husband. so when i got out they wouldnt give me any infomation. i knew and loved this lady with all my heart and i know first hand cover ups do happen. i dont guess there is anything that can be done about it now but i hope this ladies people does a better job for her than Miss Mitchells done for her.

    • admin says:

      We appreciate you writing that. Sympathy for your loss and I know what you mean about coverups. They seem to be more common than I ever guessed in county jails. But this kind of coverup is the worst. Not your fault though, remember. It takes somebody right there when it happens, who knows a smart honest lawyer with a smart investigator to expose it because seldom if ever do the Rangers. Don’t know what happened to the Henderson County investigation, but I can guess, can’t you?

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