By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
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By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
The deeply regretful Morales later told Solano that he didn't remember how many video statements he had made. "This is a situation where the kid is being classically coerced," Solano says. "The kid is not sleeping, and every three or four hours they come in and want something else."
The emergency-room doctor who examined Sophia told police that he didn't see signs of foul play, the police records show. Moreover, the medical examiner's report described Sophia as a well-nourished infant. Her body didn't show signs of abuse, except for two small bruises on her head and buttocks.
"The saddest part of the case is, we believe we had a viable defense," Solano says. "Everything corroborates his story. At most, this was a case of reckless endangerment or endangering the welfare of a child. Now, everyone will just remember him as a monster."
Morales arrived at Rikers following his arrest and was placed in the protective-custody unit. He should've had a mental-health evaluation as well.
"I thought he needed additional monitoring because of the charges and his grief—plus I wasn't sure how other inmates would treat him," Solano says.
Early in his stay at Rikers, Morales spoke of suicide, but he seemed to adjust and seemed a little more comfortable after a while, Heredia says.
After two months, Morales asked to be taken out of protective custody, and Solano says he made this request to the Correction Department. But officials there declined to do so, for reasons that are still unclear.
Heredia visited Morales. He told her during the visit that he didn't intentionally kill Sophia, and he also complained that he was having trouble reaching his girlfriend. He said he wanted to fight the charges.
"He became more optimistic," Heredia says. "But he had no communication with Olga. He couldn't reach her."
Morales finally did find a number and called her. It was then, according to Heredia, that Olga told him she was pregnant by another man. Olga told Heredia that she felt she needed another child to replace the one she'd lost.
On April 27, after that awful phone call, Morales returned to his cell and hanged himself.
By one account, after the phone call with Olga, Morales was screaming and banging on his cell door. One inmate, the sources said, screamed for an officer, but the officer told the inmate to be quiet.
Under DOC rules, Morales should have been monitored every half-hour. But sources tell the Voice that officers assigned to the unit sometimes shirk their required rounds.
"It's not clear that the regulations were followed in this case," a correction source said.
In addition, Morales covered the window in his cell door with a sheet, and the officers either didn't notice it or didn't act when they saw it, sources said.
Morales was finally discovered at 4:30 p.m. by a correction captain who was making a visit to the floor, rather than by the assigned officers, sources said. The time of death was listed as 5:20 p.m.
"If he was supposed to be under extra supervision, somebody was not doing their job," says Heredia.
It remains unclear how often Morales saw mental-health counselors during his time at Rikers.
Morales's suicide was the second in two years in the protective-custody unit at the Robert N. Davoren Center. In November 2006, Matthew Cruz, a 38-year-old New Jersey man charged in a stock-manipulation case, hanged himself by a sheet woven through his bars. The suicide was the second in recent months for one of the officers assigned to the unit, sources said. It is unclear whether that officer has been disciplined.
A State Commission of Correction report on the Cruz death concluded that the mental-health treatment he had received was inadequate, flawed, and crippled by poor decision-making and poor record-keeping that violated department policy. The commission blamed Prison Health Services Inc., a company that provides health care at Rikers under a huge Department of Health contract.
The health-care workers dismissed clear signals that Cruz intended to commit suicide, the state report said. Cruz had been placed in "close custody" after his life was threatened by another inmate. Six days before his death, he slashed both his wrists in an initial suicide attempt.
The heavily redacted report also suggests that DOC staff did not have a defibrillator on hand, as required, and that may have contributed to his death.
Jail officials had placed Mercado in a dorm with 50 other inmates, even though a Queens judge, Gene Lopez, had ordered, both in writing and from the bench, that the teen should be placed on suicide watch, according to the family's lawyer, Andrew Stoll.
For some reason, however, correction officials and PHS decided to ignore the judge and place Mercado in the general population. It is unclear whether officials even did a thorough mental-health screening of the teen. Mercado killed himself less than 24 hours after being admitted to Rikers.
Even more troubling, state reports on a series of other suicides at city jails show lapses by both correction staff and PHS medical personnel dating back to 2001.