Inmate death at Marion County Jail prompts FDLE investigation
The Marion County Jail is shown at the Marion County Sheriff’s Office complex on Dec. 28. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette]
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the death of inmate Scott Whitley III, 46, who died in custody while on suicide watch at the Marion County Jail after a confrontation with officers.
Whitley was being held on a felony charge of resisting an officer with violence and a misdemeanor for violation of an injunction for protection against exploitation of a vulnerable adult, officials say.
Marion County Sheriff’s Office officials said that on the morning of Nov. 25, Whitley refused to cooperate during a routine cell inspection. When the inmate refused to be handcuffed for the inspection, detention deputies used pepper foam and electronic disabling devices, or tasers, to subdue him. Six detention deputies ultimately were brought in to forcefully gain his compliance, according to an incident report filed shortly after his death.
“After the inmate was brought outside of his cell, it was discovered that he did not appear to be breathing. Detention deputies immediately began life-saving measures as medical staff responded. The inmate was transported quickly to AdventHealth Ocala, where he was later pronounced deceased,” according to an MCSO press release.
As of Tuesday, the FDLE investigation is still ongoing.
The six deputies involved in Whitley’s death are claiming protection as crime victims under Marsy’s Law, and their identities are not being released to the public. Each deputy has been placed on paid suspension, which will continue until the investigation results can conclusively recommend further action, said MCSO spokesperson Lt. Paul Bloom.
According to MCSO reports, the jail deputies involved in the incident said Whitley had showed aggression since his arrest on Nov. 16. He became violent and refused to leave his parents’ home when law enforcement came to the residence to serve him a civil injunction filed by his parents for a protection order of a vulnerable adult, according to the arrest report.
Whitley’s parents, Scott Whitley Jr., 80, and Margaret Whitley, 76, filed this civil complaint to remove him from their home, claiming that they, being elderly or disabled adults, were being exploited by their son.
As included in the arrest affidavit, Whitley’s parents sought measures to protect themselves, including prohibiting any contact from their son and restraining their son from committing any acts of exploitation or violence toward them.
While the incident that led to Whitley’s death was his last altercation with detention deputies, it was not his first, according to two previous incident reports filed within nine days of his death. Incident reports filed on Nov. 18 and Nov. 24 claim Whitley showed he did not comply with deputies and showed aggression during cell inspections and strip searches.
The first incident report states that Whitley tried to force his way out of a shared cell. After he did not comply with deputies’ verbal commands to redirect him back into the cell, he was sprayed in the face with pepper foam. Once back in the cell, deputies placed hand and leg restraints on him, to which he did not resist, according to the report.
Whitley was placed on suicide watch while at the jail, causing him to be moved into administrative confinement, or isolation. All male suicide precaution inmates are required to undergo strip searches, which led to a second reported incident when Whitley once again attempted to leave his cell once the search was completed, according to the report.
During this second incident when deputies attempted to push Whitley back in his cell, he began “swinging” at deputies, then was able to make his way past them and down the hallway. Whitley was tased three separate times before the involved deputies applied restraints to gain his compliance, according to the incident report.
Administrative confinement cells are typically monitored directly or through surveillance cameras. Inmates who are classified as suicide precautions are often placed in isolated cells to reduce any potential harm they might cause themselves. They are also issued certain garments without anything that might aid an inmate in inflicting harm upon themself, said Bloom.
“Not all cells within the Marion County Jail are under video surveillance, but his was under audio and visual surveillance,” said Timothy McCourt, general counsel to Sheriff Billy Woods and MCSO.
The Gazette requested footage from Whitley’s cell during the incident that led to his death but was denied by McCourt since “in addition to it being part of an active criminal investigation, security videos from the inside of the jail are confidential and exempt pursuant to §119.071(3)(a)1, Fla. Stat. and §281.301, Fla. Stat.”
An inmate is placed in administrative confinement and considered a suicide precaution if they make any verbal threat or physical action to harm or kill themselves, Bloom said.
If an inmate charged with a felony went to trial and was deemed at sufficient need of mental health treatment, the judge may decide to have them treated in a psychiatric facility. Depending on the circumstance, an inmate can receive temporary care from psychiatric facilities or the in-jail medical facility, he said.
“If the judge has said OK and they can get released or bonded out, they can go to get basically psychological help,” said Bloom. “So like SMA or The Vines and be treated. From there they can be able to be released, they can be taken to jail to follow the original arrests.”
SMA Healthcare provides behavioral healthcare to individuals experiencing mental health or addiction. The Vines Hospital is a psychiatric facility that provides crisis stabilization and detox services to those suffering from addiction or mental health issues.
While MCSO stated in the incident report on Nov. 24 that Whitley was a suicide precaution inmate, mental health records of an inmate are confidential in compliance with 945.10(1)(a) of the Florida Statutes. In compliance with 45 C.F.R. § 164.502(f), HIPAA keeps sensitive medical information confidential, even after a person’s death.
The public defender assigned to his case, Sean Kevin Gravel, denied commenting on if Whitley had any previous mental health issues, as attorney-client privilege survives a client in the instance of death.
Whitley was scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday. Gravel entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf, but said he was assigned to Whitley’s case after his death and was not made aware that he died in custody.
To learn more about how Marion County Sheriff’s Office applies Marsy’s Law read this link: https://bit.ly/3Wz9aUX