Four years after it launched an investigation into the death of Mark D. McCullaugh Jr., the U.S. attorney’s office on Friday essentially declared the case over. It concluded after an exhaustive and independent investigation that there was not sufficient evidence to pursue federal charges of criminal civil rights violations.
The pain and the disappointment of McCullaugh’s relatives at the decision can well be understood. The comfort they and the public at large may draw from this harrowing experience is that the tragic incident exposed serious deficiencies in the handling of inmates experiencing mental health problems while in custody.
McCullaugh, 28, who had a history of mental illness, died in August 2006 after a violent struggle with sheriff’s deputies trying to subdue him in the Summit County Jail. The medical examiner’s report put the cause of death as asphyxiation from blunt-force blows and various forms of restraints, including pepper spray and shots from a stun gun. A sheriff’s deputy was found not guilty of murder in the case. Charges against four others were dismissed. All five subsequently were cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the state. A wrongful death suit against the county was settled for $862,500.
Drew Alexander, the former sheriff, has aptly commented, “There was a lot to be learned on this case.” Among them is the need for a full public accounting, which has been lacking, of how exactly McCullaugh ended up dying. Still, much has been learned that will help to reduce the potential for such tragic episodes, including intensive training in responding to inmates with mental illness as well as better techniques and procedures for restraining and removing those who are violent. Clear, too, is that Ohio needs more comprehensive resources, as proposed in an expanded Medicaid, to provide appropriate care and treatment for mentally ill persons in the criminal justice system.