Burlco jail deaths draw inquiry from human rights group

Posted: May 06, 2014

MOUNT HOLLY Officials from the human rights group Amnesty International are investigating the deaths of two Burlington County Jail inmates, saying a letter they received from the Prosecutor's Office detailing the circumstances only bolstered their suspicions that at least one of the inmates was neglected.

Robert Taylor, 75, a homeless man, died Dec. 30 in the jail. Jerome Iozzia, 50, of Browns Mills, died Feb. 25. Both deaths were ruled to be from natural causes, and the Prosecutor's Office ruled out wrongdoing by correctional officers. But other inmates and Iozzia's fiancee have accused the jail of neglect, which county officials have vehemently denied.

In the letter sent to Amnesty on Feb. 26, the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office revealed details of its investigation into Taylor's death.

Sixteen days earlier, Amnesty had written to Burlington County Jail Warden Lawrence Artis and the Prosecutor's Office, calling for an "immediate and comprehensive investigation into this man's death."

A county freeholder also pressed the Prosecutor's Office during that time to release information on Taylor's case, according to e-mails The Inquirer obtained through the Open Public Records Act.

Georgina Shanley, coordinator of Amnesty's Cape May County chapter, said she was surprised when the Prosecutor's Office responded to her letter. She had cited "reports of violation of the rights of the human beings incarcerated" in the jail.

"I'm kind of happy they responded because of what was in the letter, in a way," she said recently. "Because the letter really indicates that here is a sick man, an old man, a frail man, who was known by the personnel in the prison, who was arrested, and he was just really left basically to die. And it's surprising that the letter would have been so explicit."

The letter, signed by Deputy First Assistant Prosecutor James Ronca, said that Taylor often defecated and urinated on himself, and that he refused to eat several meals over four days.

Around noon on the day Taylor died, Ronca wrote, a psychiatrist found the inmate unresponsive and in a "deep sleep" on his bed - the same place he was found dead later that day. Around 3 p.m., Ronca wrote, a correctional officer reported Taylor was awake.

Speaking to The Inquirer in March, county officials were unable to explain how that was determined.

Around 4:30 p.m., Ronca wrote, correctional officers entered the cell and found Taylor dead.

Ronca wrote that Taylor was regularly monitored by correctional officers and nursing staff, and that, "while Robert Taylor's death is certainly unfortunate, it was not the consequence of any actions or omissions by the BCJ staff."

Taylor was sent to the jail four times last year, the last time for missing a court hearing after allegedly defecating in a Riverside laundry.

The Inquirer, through the Open Public Records Act, has sought the jail logs and other documents Ronca cited in the letter to Amnesty. The county, however, has withheld the documents, citing "building security" concerns.

The release of such information in Taylor's case caused a disagreement between Freeholder Joanne Schwartz and Prosecutor Robert Bernardi.

On Feb. 20 - six days before the Prosecutor's Office responded to Amnesty - Schwartz sent Bernardi an e-mail marked "high" importance.

"As you know, a lot has been posted on the Internet," she wrote, referring to an inmate's allegations that correctional officers had left Taylor to die in his own feces. "Accordingly," Schwartz said, "please update us on the present status of this case."

Bernardi rejected Schwartz's request, saying, "It is well beyond the authority of the Freeholder Board or any of its members to request to be briefed on any investigation." He told Schwartz his office was preparing a response for Amnesty to address "erroneous" allegations, but that "the criminal investigations performed by the county prosecutor are confidential."

Six days later, with the investigation of Taylor's death closed, the Prosecutor's Office revealed details in the letter to Amnesty. The freeholders also were able to review it.

Schwartz and Leah Arter, a freeholder who resigned in March to take another job, said they agreed with the prosecutor's decision to release details of Taylor's case to Amnesty. But they disagreed over whether a freeholder should have asked for them.

Reached Thursday by phone, Arter said: "I have no interest in engaging in something a freeholder should have never done."

Schwartz said she was trying to find out whether the allegations of neglect were true. She found it unusual, she said, that the Prosecutor's Office would release details of the case to Amnesty.

"I wouldn't describe it as unfair," she said. "I would describe it as unusual. The whole case is unusual."

Legal experts say it's rare for a prosecutor's office to voluntarily provide details of a death investigation to an outside group.

"It is pretty unusual," said Stephanos Bibas, professor of law and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, who was not familiar with the Taylor case and who spoke generally about the issue.

Having to deal with allegations or rumors during an investigation can be frustrating, he added. "But that's kind of their job."

Joel Bewley, a spokesman for the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office, said the only reason the office responded to Amnesty was "our recognition of them as an international human rights organization."

"It is not common for us to receive a question about an investigation from a group as widely known as Amnesty International," Bewley said in an e-mail. "So when we do, we try to respond."

Amnesty officials said they didn't have a timeline for taking potential further action in the inmates' deaths, but that both cases were being taken very seriously. The fiancee of Iozzia, the second inmate who died, has said she plans to sue the county.


mboren@phillynews.com

856-779-3829 @borenmc

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|