Contact awry in inmate death
Prince Edward County Commonwealth’s Attorney Megan Clark contends Piedmont Regional Jail (PRJ) officials never contacted her regarding an attack on an inmate that would later result in the death of a 34-year-old Culpeper man.
Virginia State Police says Jason P. Sisson died Aug. 22 — 10 days after allegedly being assaulted by George M. Chute, a 35-year-old inmate. The jail said in a press release that Sisson died Aug. 21 at 6:24 p.m.
The incident took place Aug. 12, and Clark said she learned of the assault through the victim’s mother Aug. 21 — three days after Sisson returned to the jail from the hospital following the altercation and the same day jail officials said he died.
Sisson was found on the floor of his cell the same day Clark learned of the incident.
Sisson, according to a press release issued by the jail Aug. 31, “was involved in an altercation with another inmate.”
“Inmate Sisson required emergency treatment at Centra Southside (Community) Hospital … After being triaged at Southside Hospital, he was transported to the Medical College of Virginia (MCV) with head trauma,” officials said in the press release.
According to jail officials, “(Sisson) remained at MCV until Aug. 18, when he was released to return to PRJ, where he remained on medical observation. On the night of Aug. 21, an officer observed Inmate Sisson lying on the floor of his cell. The jail’s medical staff promptly triaged … Sisson and determined that he needed to be transferred to Centra Southside Hospital. Upon arrival at (the hospital), he was again transported to MCV Hospital … Sisson died on Aug. 21 at (6:24 p.m.).”
When asked why she contacted State Police, Clark said she “received a visit on Aug. 21 from the decedent’s mother, and she indicated that her son had been
beaten pretty severely back on Aug. 12 at PRJ. And at that point, she just wanted to know what she could do to possibly get him out of that particular facility,” Clark said. “That was the first time I had been made aware of the assault that took place on Aug. 12, and no one else in my office had been made aware of it.”
“When I spoke with her and based on the description of the injuries that he sustained, to include not being able to see out of one eye and not being able to hear, I called (Superintendent) Donald Hunter at the jail (and) asked him to brief me on the situation, which he did. Then I contacted State Police … It was later in the day that I found out that the decedent had been taken to the hospital where he was later declared brain dead,” Clark said.
Chute faces a charge of malicious wounding, according to police, though Clark says she recommended a charge of aggravated malicious wounding, which Hunter says the jail charged him with, noting a magistrate altered the charge to malicious wounding.
“We had no messages from the jail and no messages were left here for Wendy (Hannah, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney) on Friday, (Aug. 18) … She did not have any voicemails, she did not have any emails, nor did she have any text messages,” Clark said.
“After I received a visit from the mother, I called … Hunter, and he indicated that he thought that someone had gotten in touch with us on Friday,” Clark said, “but we did not have anything to verify that anyone had reached out to our office that previous Friday, which was the 18th.”
“They said that they did (contact us) but we have no indication that was done,” Clark said of the jail contacting her office Aug. 18.
According to Hunter, the jail called Clark’s office Aug. 18, “but Wendy wasn’t in at that time. But when Wendy got with us on that Monday, they both came over,” Hunter said, referring to Clark and Hannah.
Hunter said Clark learned of the incident Aug. 21.
According to Clark, Hannah was not in the office the entire day of Aug. 18.
“The charges are the result of an investigation by the Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigation’s Appomattox Field Office, in conjunction with authorities from the Piedmont Regional Jail,” State Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said regarding the incident. “The investigation stemmed from an assault which occurred at the jail on Aug. 12.”
Geller said the State Police investigation was initiated Aug. 21 at the request of Clark.
“Initially, I recommended that they seek the charge of aggravated malicious wounding,” Clark said, “and for whatever reason, (Chute) only got the charge of malicious wounding. And that is our starting point because we are awaiting autopsy results … before determining whether the charge of aggravated malicious wounding is sufficient or whether we are able to prove a greater charge.”
Clark said typically State Police “handles investigations at PRJ because our sheriff sits on the PRJ Board. And to not have any perceived conflict … they don’t handle those investigations.”
When asked why several days passed before she was contacted regarding the alleged assault, she said, “I don’t know. I know that the decedent was in the hospital, I believe, until the 18th, but I do not have a valid reason as to why we were not contacted,” Clark said.
“State Police is still conducting their investigation. They are still in the information-gathering stage,” Clark said. “And when we receive the official autopsy results, we will sit down and go through all of the information we have to determine what charges are most appropriate.”
Clark said Sisson was being held on a conviction in Culpeper County.
When asked why State Police wasn’t contacted earlier to investigate the incident, Hunter said the jail performed “an internal investigation, and then I … had to get the (commonwealth’s attorney) to contact the State Police … But we did an internal investigation first.”
Hunter said the jail charged the suspect with aggravated malicious wounding, as recommended by Clark.
“We charged them … That’s what she came up with,” Hunter said of the recommended charge from Clark. “…The magistrate charged (him) with something different.”
“We asked for it … as instructed by (Clark),” Hunter confirmed of the aggravated malicious wounding charge.
“This is the way we do it,” Hunter said, explaining protocol for asking State Police to investigate. “If I feel as though it needs to be investigated, I contact the sheriff’s office first … We contact State Police and let’s just say we had to get the (commonwealth’s attorney) to contact the State Police also to get them moving. And that’s the way we got to it.”
Hunter said normal procedure is to always contact the sheriff’s office first “out of respect to the sheriff and the county … That’s who we contact first; that’s our protocol, and then he’ll say, ‘No, instead of one of my people doing it, we’re going to get the State Police to do it,’ which is fine with us.”
Defining “medical observation,” Hunter said, “That means when somebody comes back from the hospital, we have them on a 15-minute watch because the injuries that he had. So we’re constantly watching them to make sure they’re OK.”
“We’re still doing the internal investigation as well,” Hunter said regarding the possibility of disciplinary action against jail staff in connection with the incident.