Woman died violently at hands of Virginia deputies, lawyer contends

Published 9:15 am Sunday, February 15, 2015

WASHINGTON – Fairfax County, Virginia authorities have said little about the events inside the county jail that left an inmate dead this month after deputies used a stun gun on her, but an attorney for the woman’s family said it was a violent end.

Two black eyes, a badly bruised arm and a finger that had to be amputated. Those were the injuries Natasha McKenna had when she was admitted to Inova Fairfax Hospital on Feb. 3, said attorney Harvey Volzer.

Volzer said doctors have told the family that the 37-year-old woman was stunned as many as five times during an encounter with sheriff’s deputies as they prepared to transfer her to Alexandria, Virginia, to face a charge stemming from a fight with police there.

Now, the family is left wondering why such force was necessary to subdue a 130-pound woman who was diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 12 and had struggled with the disease ever since, Volzer said.

“They remember her fondly,” the attorney said of McKenna’s family. “Like anyone with mental health problems, she sometimes addressed them successfully and other times did not.”

Fairfax County Sheriff’s Capt. Tyler Corey declined to comment on Volzer’s account, which was the first provided by a representative of the family. He also would not provide additional facts beyond a news release that was sent out last week.

“This is very frustrating for us, too,” Corey said. “We want to give information to the public at large, but due to the ongoing police investigation, we cannot.”

The sheriff’s office said in the news release that McKenna did not comply with deputies’ commands and physically resisted them on the morning of Feb. 3 as they prepared to move her. She had been held since Jan. 26 on a charge of assault on a law enforcement officer in Alexandria.

The sheriff’s office has not said how McKenna resisted deputies or how many times the stun gun was used on her. In the aftermath, the release said, she was checked by medical personnel, restrained and moved for transfer to an entryway, where she had a medical emergency.

Deputies called emergency crews and performed CPR on McKenna until paramedics arrived after 11:20 a.m., the sheriff’s office said. The Fairfax City fire chief said McKenna was in cardiac arrest, and Volzer said she was brain dead by the time she arrived at the hospital.

McKenna was removed from life support Feb. 8 and died. Fairfax County Police – responsible for investigating all in-custody deaths at the jail – then opened a review.

The death comes amid concerns about law enforcement’s use of force and transparency in Fairfax after an ongoing 18-month investigation into the police shooting of Springfield resident John Geer, who had been unarmed.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and others have repeatedly raised questions about the slow pace of that investigation and pushed officials to release more information to the public about the case. No charges have been filed in Geer’s killing.

Corey said the sheriff’s office is careful about the use of stun guns, saying “it is almost a last resort.”

“We try to use all other means possible first for the safety of the inmate and staff,” Corey said.

The sheriff’s office’s guidelines for stun-gun use say the devices can be deployed on violent or potentially violent subjects when deadly force does not appear necessary and the subject cannot be restrained or is not complying with commands. There are no limits listed on how many times a subject can be stunned.

Ron Martinelli, a forensic criminologist and a former detective, said it is a general practice for officers to check on a subject after each stun to see if they are ready to be compliant. It is unclear whether that was done in McKenna’s case.

He said he does not recommend stunning a subject more than three times.

“We don’t want to create a situation where a person having a psycho-health emergency is having that issue exacerbated” by the use of the stun gun, Martinelli said.

Alexandria police said McKenna was taken into custody on Jan. 15 after reports from a Hertz car rental location on South Pickett Street that she was being disruptive and acting strangely.

When officers arrived, McKenna ran from them, Alexandria police said. She was later found at a nearby Home Depot.

Alexandria police said she resisted officers’ attempts to take her into custody and punched one in the face. McKenna was pepper sprayed and ended up fighting on the ground with two officers, they said. She was taken into custody and later allegedly tried to bite an officer.

McKenna was taken from one hospital to another, where police eventually obtained an involuntary temporary detention order.

Alexandria police obtained a warrant for McKenna’s arrest for assault on a law enforcement officer for the Jan. 15 incident. Fairfax police served it on Jan. 26, then took McKenna to the jail.

It is not clear why she remained at the jail for eight days before sheriffs attempted to transfer her back to Alexandria.

Volzer said McKenna had bounced around a number of different professions and had attended dental school and culinary school. He believed she had most recently worked as a dental hygienist.

Police listed her as homeless, but Volzer said she had an apartment in Alexandria.

McKenna will be buried on Monday, Volzer said.

Washington Post staff writer Tom Jackman contributed to this report.