Doubts linger after man, 32, dies in custody

Family, Howard police disagree on whether case was handled right

Arrested on suspicion of DUI

Kin note health problems

police say they didn't see any hint life was in peril

April 09, 2002|By Julie Bykowicz and Jamie Smith Hopkins | Julie Bykowicz and Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The weekend death of an Annapolis man in Howard County police custody has raised questions about the department's policies and its officers' conduct the night of the arrest.

With the man's family considering a lawsuit, everything from whether the man was driving that night to how police handle suspects who are not drunk but are behaving erratically, is being investigated internally by police.

A county police spokeswoman said yesterday that officers followed procedures in the case of Michael Keliher Donahue, 32, who was arrested Friday evening on suspicion of driving under the influence. He was pronounced dead less than 12 hours later.

Family members, awaiting an autopsy report, continued to question the Police Department's handling of the case. And the director of Howard County's Mobile Crisis Team, which assists police in psychiatric or behavioral emergencies, said officers should have sought medical treatment for Donahue after ascertaining that he was not drunk.

"The clue here is that they determined he was not under the influence of alcohol. When police considered the alternatives to alcohol, they must not have realized that one of those alternatives could be fatal," crisis team Director Andrea Ingram said, adding that situations can seem clearer in hindsight.

The police encounter with Michael Donahue and his brother, John Murphy Donahue, 30, both of the 200 block of Providence Road, began after a motorist reported seeing a white van weaving on Montgomery Road in Elkridge, police said. Officers found the van stopped at a nearby Exxon service station and the brothers changing a flat tire, police said.

County police and the Donahue family offer different versions of the events that followed.

"My family and I are very anxious to get out our side of the story," said John Donahue, who was with his brother at the time of the arrest. He said his lawyer had advised him not to speak further about details of the arrest.

Police say Michael Donahue, whom both brothers identified as the van's driver, appeared to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. According to court records, Michael Donahue twice has been convicted of fraudulently obtaining prescription medicines, including Percocet, Vicodin and Xanax.

The family said Michael Donahue was introduced to prescription drugs after he broke his back several years ago and that he became addicted to painkillers.

Police said they found five white tablets of clonazepam, also known by the brand name Klonopin, when they searched the van Friday at the Exxon station.

Donahue's family said he suffered from medical problems that mimic the effects of such drugs. They said a doctor gave him a prescription for clonazepam after kidney failure left him with minor brain damage.

Clonazepam is prescribed to treat seizures, movement disorders and panic attacks, but the drug - sometimes called "pins" - sells illegally for $3 to $5 a pill, a Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman said.

Police said they originally thought Michael Donahue, who failed a field sobriety test and whose speech was slurred, was driving under the influence of alcohol. A Breathalyzer test administered that night at the Southern District police station found that his blood-alcohol level was zero. He was jailed in one of the station's holding cells.

Police did not call the Mobile Crisis Team for assistance, Ingram said. "Really, with his symptoms, they probably should have called [a doctor] for a physical evaluation," she said. Michael Donahue "could have been having a diabetic crisis."

A Howard County police spokeswoman said the officers had no way of knowing that Michael Donahue's life was in danger.

"If there is no sign of medical distress and the person is not complaining of any medical emergency, there's no reason to call an ambulance," said Pfc. Lisa Myers, the spokeswoman.

Policy calls for officers to "check on the health of prisoners and notify a [supervisor] of any unusual medical conditions," according to the Howard County Police Department's general orders.

Such conditions are defined to include unusual behavior such as unstable mental or emotional status; fainting or seizures; body deformities; broken bones; trauma markings, lacerations or bruises; signs of a contagious disease; and the prisoner's saying that medication is essential.

There was no hint during the arrest and booking that anything was wrong with Michael Donahue, police said, other than that he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

"Every night we arrest a lot of people under the influence of alcohol and drugs, and very few of those people are a medical emergency," Myers said.

5 others shared cell

Because of his condition, police placed Donahue in a cell with five other men, intending to bring him before a court commissioner when he became more coherent, Myers said.

His cellmates complained that Donahue snored loudly throughout the night, she said. When police noticed that he had stopped snoring, they found that Donahue was no longer breathing.

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