News » Local News

Coroner drags heels on cause of inmate death


It's been a month since Andrew Spillane died after he was pepper sprayed inside his jail cell.

And, his family still doesn't know why he died. Neither does the District Attorney's office; neither do police.

Despite initial estimates by the Coroner's Office that an autopsy report would take about a month to complete, it's unclear when the official cause of death will be released. The pathologist overseeing the autopsy, Dr. Debbie Johnson, is a part-time employee who has been out of town for much of the past month.

El Paso County's elected coroner, Dr. David Bowerman, who oversees the department, said he is unsure when Johnson's autopsy report will be completed. Johnson was assigned the case because she was on duty the day Spillane died, he said.

Currently out of town, Johnson is scheduled to be back at work on June 13 for one day, and then is out of the office again until June 26.

Until the cause and manner of death is determined, the District Attorney's Office and the Sheriff's department cannot complete their own investigations into why Spillane, a 30-year old man, died after he was pepper sprayed in his jail cell on May 10.

Spillane had been arrested that same day on marijuana-related charges but had not been convicted of any crime.

Police and sheriff's officials have also refused to release any arrest and jail incident reports detailing what led to Spillane's death to his family until the autopsy report is complete. The wait has become frustrating.

"Something that took place in the matter of 24 hours has taken a month for us to get any information about and we don't understand what the hold up is," said Aimee Gahagan, Spillane's sister. "We can't plan anything until we get the reports.

"I just wish we had something to look at, some concrete proof of what's going on," she said.

Within a month

Fourth Judicial District Attorney Jeanne Smith and sheriff's spokesman Lt. Ken Hilte said their departments were initially told the autopsy report would be completed within a month of Spillane's death. Now, they say, it may be two weeks or more before they receive the report.

"This one is slower than most," Smith said.

Bowerman said he did not know why his office initially told the sheriff and district attorney's office the autopsy report would be completed in a month. And, he said Johnson's part-time status was not taken into consideration when she was assigned to the high profile case.

By contrast, the coroner in neighboring Douglas County said that most autopsies average 8 to 11 weeks for completion, however in high profile cases, such as when a police officer is involved in the death of a civilian, the case generally gets high priority.

"We can tell them, for whatever reason, 'we need these results quick,' and we can get it back within two weeks," said Coroner Mark Stover. "Say it's a homicide -- or if an officer is involved in a shooting -- and the case is running through the courts fast, or the District Attorney needs the stuff quick, we can turn it around pretty fast."

Still on duty

After Colorado Springs Police arrested Spillane, he was taken to Memorial Hospital for treatment because he was acting erratically, Gahagan said she was told. Her brother was then transferred by sheriff's deputies to the Criminal Justice Center, where he continued to act erratically and was eventually pepper sprayed by deputies while in his jail cell. He died a short time later.

Hilte said four deputies were involved in the incident, and all remain on duty while the investigations continue.

According to the sheriff's rules of procedure, whenever deputies are involved in an incident involving a fatality they are placed on leave pending the outcome of the investigation. However, that policy does not similarly apply to jailers when they are involved in incidents resulting in inmate deaths.

Despite numerous reports of pepper spray contributing to the deaths of individuals elsewhere, Hilte said the department doesn't believe the pepper spray was the direct cause of inmate Spillane's death, "based on fact that pepper spray doesn't usually result in death."

"That's not considered deadly force," he said.

Add a comment

Clicky Quantcast