An Annapolis man who died in the custody of Howard County police in April was killed by a dose of heroin that stopped his diseased heart, a medical examiner's report shows.
Howard County police officials and family members of 32-year-old Michael Keliher Donahue, who died April 6 after being arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol, disagreed over the significance of the report.
Police said the results proved that they acted correctly because Donahue, of the 200 block of Providence Road, showed no signs of physical abuse. Police also said that they are continuing an internal investigation into the incident but that they are unlikely to make any policy changes because of Donahue's death.
Donahue's family and lawyers say police should have known that Donahue was in physical danger and should have given him medical attention.
"His crime did not have to equal death," said Donahue's brother, John Murphy Donahue.
Michael Donahue was arrested the night of April 5, when drivers called Howard County police to report a suspected drunken driver in a white van near the 4200 block of Montgomery Road in Ellicott City.
Police found the Donahue brothers in a white van nearby, where they had run up on a curb and were changing a flat tire.
Police said Michael Donahue was driving, but John Donahue, 30, later said he was behind the wheel.
However, John Donahue explained that since he had a suspended license, Michael had told police that he had been driving.
Police said that Michael had slurred speech and that he failed a field sobriety test. But a breath test later showed that he had no alcohol in his system, police added.
Police found five white tablets of clonazepam, a tranquilizer, in the van. An officer trained in recognizing drug symptoms thought that Donahue could have taken a hallucinogen but did not recommend that he be taken to the hospital, according to police.
Michael Donahue was then taken to the Southern District lockup, where he was put in a cell with five other prisoners, fell asleep and began snoring loudly, police said.
He stopped breathing in the early morning, and officers attempted to resuscitate him. Officers then took Donahue to Howard County General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead about 5 a.m.
The medical examiner's report said Donahue died of "narcotic (heroin) intoxication complicating myocardial fibrosis (scars in the heart)."
Family and lawyers said police should have intervened long before Donahue stopped breathing. His brother said he warned police that Michael was in poor health but they ignored him.
"This kid was in obvious medical distress. ... If he'd gotten the proper medical attention, he would not have died," said David Schertler, a Washington attorney retained by the Donahues.
Although Michael Donahue had been convicted of fraudulently obtaining prescription drugs, according to court documents, his brother said he was surprised about the heroin.
"I'd never known of him taking it before," John Donahue said.
He said the only reason Michael would have taken heroin would have been to relieve back pain. Michael broke five vertebrae in a construction accident several years ago, family members said.
Despite the Donahues' anger, Police Chief Wayne Livesay said the autopsy "clears up most of our questions. While this was a very unfortunate incident ... I'm still very comfortable with the way our officers handled this case," he said.
As is the practice in Baltimore and Carroll counties and Baltimore, Howard police are not required to take prisoners acting erratically, who have no trace of alcohol on their breath, to the hospital. But Anne Arundel County police are required to take any suspect who registers a zero on two tests for alcohol but still appears drunk to a hospital.
Livesay said Anne Arundel's policy would not be a good fit in Howard County. "That's not necessary or practical," he said.
Sun staff writers Laura Barnhardt, Sheridan Lyons and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.