08-09-Judge-Johnston

Anderson County Judge Robert Johnston

A Texas Rangers investigation into the death of Anderson County prisoner Rhonda Newsome showed negligence caused, or contributed to, her death, including a failure to get her to the hospital and the attempted use of a malfunctioning defibrillator.

Even without evidence of criminal wrongdoing, the Anderson County Sheriff's Office should be held accountable for negligence by the county commission.

At minimum, commissioners should ask Sheriff Greg Taylor to explain the defibrillator's malfunction and the failure to get Newsome to the hospital. They should also request a plan to correct these problems.

The Texas Rangers can't do it. Any independent oversight of the sheriff's office for non-criminal negligence must come from the Anderson County Commission. As the county's leader, Judge Robert Johnston bears a special responsibility to make it happen. 

The case for negligence is compelling.

The report on the Texas Rangers investigation, obtained by the Herald-Press this month after several freedom-of-information requests, found Newsome, 50, died in a holding cell six hours and 20 minutes after Palestine Regional Medical Center alerted the jail nurse about Newsome's critical condition.

Newsome's blood test, from blood delivered that morning, resulted in a “critical value." That means test results were dangerously abnormal and life-threatening without immediate medical attention.  

Texas Rangers investigator Stephen Baggett also noted the defibrillator that jail staff attempted to use on Newsome lacked a functioning battery and adult-sized pads. It also was under a factory recall.

The defibrillator should have been checked daily, but the jail nurse didn't even know who was responsible for maintaining it.

On Monday, Johnston said commissioners will review the private contract for jail healthcare, before the annual agreement expires Jan. 1. That's where the commission's responsibility ends, he said.

We disagree. It's Anderson County's contract and specifications. The county is responsible for how its contractor performs a constitutionally mandated service in its jail.

Moreover, commissioners control the sheriff's budget. Ensuring the money is spent efficiently and effectively is well within their purview. Malfunctioning medical equipment and a communication breakdown in an emergency are neither efficient nor effective.

Newsome died on June 15 of last year, three months after she was jailed on assault charges for attacking a family member with a scissors. She had undergone psychiatric treatment at a local mental health center.

Taylor has attempted to block from public disclosure every bit of information about Newsome's death, even withholding Newsome's jail medical records from her son.

A June 15 editorial in the Herald-Press, “Negligence contributed to Newsome's death,” reported findings of the Texas Rangers' investigation. A month ago, commissioners could say they didn't know.

Now they know.

If they choose to do nothing, they shame themselves and the county, and disregard their duty to the taxpayers who paid for this inexcusable incompetence, and will foot the bill for any civil litigation that results from it.