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Henchen's widow sues sheriff over his death
[August 31, 2008]

Henchen's widow sues sheriff over his death

(Buffalo News, The (NY) (KRT) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 31--Four days after Robert J. Henchen was charged with the murders of two elderly women in Colden, the 42-year-old man died after suffering from malnutrition and dehydration while in the Erie County Holding Center.

A state Commission of Corrections report in January said that Henchen received "negligent and incompetent care" at the Holding Center and severely criticized the medical staff there.

Now Henchen's widow is pursuing a $250,000 federal lawsuit against the Sheriff's Office, charging that negligence by jail staffers led to Henchen's death.

Darlene Henchen's attorney, John J. Molloy, said he does not expect great waves of public sympathy over the death of a criminal accused of murdering two elderly women and stuffing their bodies inside barrels in a barn.

But he said Henchen suffered from mental illness and required special care and attention that he did not receive in the county jail.

"This man was in the constant-observation unit of the jail, and the medical staff at the jail knew of his psychological and physical problems," Molloy said. "There are rules and procedures for dealing with a patient with the problems he had, and we are certain those rules and procedures were not followed in this case."

The Henchen lawsuit, which was filed last month, comes at a time when the U. S. Justice Department is investigating health care treatment in the Holding Center in downtown Buffalo and also at the County Correctional Facility in Alden. The Buffalo News reported Aug. 10 that five people -- including Henchen -- have died in the two county-run jails in the past two years.

Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, through spokeswoman Mary B. Murray, declined to comment on the Henchen lawsuit or any of the issues surrounding it.

"Because this case is now in litigation, we have been advised by the county attorney's office not to comment on the matter," Howard said.

County Attorney Cheryl A. Green also declined to comment.

According to the lawsuit:

--Henchen, a Colden resident, was jailed at the Holding Center on Jan. 19, 2007, after a parole violation.

--Jail officials became aware in early May 2007 that Henchen was not sleeping, and was refusing to eat, refusing to take prescribed medications and urinating on himself and his immediate housing area.

--When jail officials sent Henchen to a May 15, 2007 court appearance so he could hear the charges of killing Geraldine Jackson, 87, and Nancy Phelps, 69, they knew of his "physical deterioration from lack of water, food, sleep and medication."

"Mr. Henchen's physical and mental condition represented a life-threatening medical emergency on that date," Molloy said in court papers.

--After hearing those charges, Henchen was taken by ambulance from the jail to the Erie County Medical Center. Jail employees told the ECMC staff that Henchen "was not taking food or medication for seven days."

Henchen died May 19, 2007. An autopsy showed that he died of "bronchopneumonia due to starvation and dehydration with electrolyte imbalance."

The lawsuit alleges that Holding Center officials had been well aware since 2003 that Henchen had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Henchen had also exhibited bizarre behavior while jailed at the facility for three months in early 2003.

"This should not happen in a jail where you have a medical staff and you have a person who is in the constant-observation unit," Molloy said, adding that Henchen should have been hospitalized days earlier.

Henchen's death prompted the state Corrections Commission to investigate his treatment in the jail, and in January, the commission issued a report that was extremely critical of the county.

State investigators said the accused killer received "inadequate mental health care of professional-misconduct proportions."

The investigators also concluded that Holding Center nurses provided "negligent and incompetent care" that, in their view, led to Henchen's death.

The commission asked the state Education Department to investigate the professional conduct of a registered nurse at the jail, referred to in the report as "N. I." and a doctor, referred to as "Dr. B. J."

"[Despite] knowing that his patient was seriously and dangerously mentally ill, [Dr. B. J.] failed to initiate emergency intervention," the report stated.

Nurse "N. I." was accused in the report of failing "to initiate proper care for a patient."

Named as defendants in the Henchen federal lawsuit are Erie County; the sheriff; Holding Center Superintendent Donald Livingston; a Holding Center psychiatrist, Dr. Brian S. Joseph; and a nurse, Nikki Fera.

Joseph said he could not comment in detail on the Henchen death, but speaking generally, he defended his actions. He called himself a "competent, respected practitioner, dealing with some of the most difficult forensic problems and criminal inmates for the past 25 years."

"This is obviously a tragic situation. However, Mr. Henchen received concerned and thoughtful care based on sound psychiatric practices," Joseph said.

The News obtained a copy of the state's nine-page report last week, after filing a Freedom of Information request. The report was heavily redacted, with entire pages blacked out.

Portions of the report were blacked out because they contained references to Henchen's medical conditions that are not public record, according to John M. Caher, spokesman for the state Commission of Correction.

Caher was asked if the state commission's report led to the ongoing federal investigation at the Holding Center.

"I don't know what prompted the federal investigation," Caher said. "We have not been in touch with them on this."

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