Delaware ACLU seeks details about prison inmate’s death

SMYRNA — On Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware announced a lawsuit seeking details on the death of 26-year-old Dover resident Jason Cunningham, who died last year while held at James T. Vaughn Correctional Center near Smyrna.

Mr. Cunningham died on April 18, 2014; Natalie Way, his mother and estate administrator, is the plaintiff in the suit filed by the ACLU on her behalf.

Solely in his official capacity as commissioner of the Delaware Department of Correction, Robert M. Coupe is listed as the defendant.

The ACLU alleged in a news release that the DOC has provided little information about Mr. Cunningham’s detention and death other than him being placed in a four point restraint and left unmonitored in a cell on the day he was taken into custody.

Mr. Cunningham was found dead in the cell later that day, the ACLU said. The suit claimed that Mr. Cunningham was in good health when initially taken into custody after being arrested.

In a statement, the DOC confirmed that it was approached by the ACLU “within the past several weeks” seeking records for Mr. Cunningham’s family. State law prohibits release of institutional records other than medical records without a court order or subpoena, DOC spokesman Jason Miller said.

“In addition, we advised them that medical records pertaining to Mr. Cunningham would be made available upon the department’s receipt of a signed HIPPA release executed by the estate representative,” Mr. Miller said.

“At that point in time no family member had been authorized to administer his estate, although we now understand that an administratrix has subsequently been appointed …”

In a news release, Mrs. Way said, “Out of respect for me and my family and all of the people that loved Jason so much, prison officials need to tell us how and why Jason died.

“It shows a profound lack of compassion that we have had to file a lawsuit to get the answers that we deserved a year ago.”

The DOC said it expected the ACLU’s lawsuit and “we look forward to working with the ACLU to provide Mr. Cunningham’s family with the information they seek, which we hope will help them obtain closure,” according to Mr. Miller.

The ACLU said court action was needed after Mrs. Way was unable to obtain DOC records regarding her son’s treatment and death.

“The death of anyone in state custody is unacceptable, said Kathleen MacRae, ACLU of Delaware executive director.

“When an unfortunate event like the death of Jason Cunningham occurs, it is important that the family and the public know the facts to ensure that the Department of Correction is held to constitutional standards.”

When announcing Mr. Cunningham’s death in 2014, the DOC said he died at Bayhealth-Kent General Hospital at 9:50 p.m.

The DOC said Mr. Cunningham was being held in default of bail regarding charges including resisting arrest, menacing, loitering, theft under $1,500 with victim 62 years or older, attempted theft of motor vehicle, and criminal mischief under $1,000 with damaged property.

Following standard procedure, Mr. Cunningham’s body was turned over to the State Medical Examiner’s Office, the DOC said. Delaware State Police and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner were conducting an investigation of Mr. Cunningham’s death immediately afterward.

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