A Quiet Little Death at Bellevue

Inmate Patrick Miller didn't beat the system. It beat him.

It was the afternoon of May 17, 2007, and Patrick Miller was in the rec room of Bellevue Hospital's 19 North jail ward, indulging in his favorite pastime: propping up gym mats to create a maze and then running and scooting through it, over and over again.

As usual, the 31-year-old schizophrenic man, safe for the past two months in this home away from his homelessness, muttered and babbled as he negotiated the maze.

"Shut the fuck up, Miller," a jail guard assigned to the hospital's rec room told him.

Patrick at home in South Carolina, four years before his death at Bellevue.

Patrick at home in South Carolina, four years before his death at Bellevue.

A short time later, at 3 p.m., Miller went to group therapy with about seven other inmates. At 4 p.m., he emerged from the group session and was waving his shirt and dancing in the hallway.

The same guard continued to berate him.

At this point, the details get murky. According to two accounts, the six-foot-one, 200-pound Miller began pacing, and his happy expression darkened into anger. He lashed out by striking a guard—not the one who was haranguing him.

Five guards immediately waded in and beat and kicked the hell out of the mentally ill man. Several struck him repeatedly; one may have bludgeoned him with a walkie-talkie.

A heavily armored riot squad arrived and took Miller out of the ward and into a holding pen in another wing, 19 West.

A short time later, Miller was pronounced dead.

The medical examiner concluded that the "cause of death" was "probable cardiac arrhythmia, following a struggle during agitated episode due to schizoaffective disorder"—in other words, his heart stopped because of an irregular heartbeat brought on by a struggle not with jail guards, but with his mental illness.

Miller's "manner of death" was listed as "undetermined," rather than as a homicide or accidental.

But the actual autopsy report, only recently obtained by the Voice, shows that Miller's body was a mass of fresh bruises, hemorrhages, and internal bleeding—the type of injuries almost certainly caused by repeated blows, and far more suggestive of homicide.

Based on those injuries, a lawsuit filed last week in federal court charges that the guards simply beat Miller to death, that it wasn't his irregular heartbeat caused by his schizophrenia that killed him, but the "massive trauma" caused by the kicks and blows that rained on him.

"It is possible to restrain someone in a highly agitated state without inflicting these injuries," says Jonathan Chasen of the Legal Aid Society's Prisoners Rights Project, who filed the suit. "This is something that is done responsibly all the time."

Another lawyer working on the Miller case, Jonathan Abady, says there is a "disconnect" between the findings in the autopsy and the medical examiner's reluctance to draw a conclusion about the manner of death.

"We believe the blows were fatal," says Abady. "The circumstances are extremely troubling, and raise a lot of questions about why it happened."

Ellen Borakove, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner, declines to comment on the specifics of the autopsy report. She notes that her office's findings can be amended if new information surfaces: "In general, 'undetermined' means we don't have enough information to draw a conclusion," she says. "It means we're not ruling anything out or in."

The Voice pieced together the story of Patrick Miller's final few hours from numerous records and interviews with people close to the situation; most of the people interviewed for this story wouldn't be identified by name or job. Offically, no action has been taken. The Manhattan district attorney has been investigating the case for more than a year now, but a spokeswoman declined to comment for this story. The Department of Correction also declined comment on the incident.

Patrick's mother, Billie Ann Miller, 52, who lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina, calls her son's death "so heartbreaking for me to talk about." She adds: "I feel that justice should be done, because he didn't even have a chance to try to straighten his life up. I feel he was like a kid in his mind."

Bellevue's jail wards are supposed to be the most secure place in a system that, by default, has become one of the largest mental-health providers in the region for the thousands of mentally ill people adrift on New York's streets. These people in need of psychiatric care often wind up not in hospitals or mental-health-care facilities, but in the jail system, or at least in a hospital's jail ward.

Miller's death—which came only three months after another inmate/patient, Joel Noonan, hanged himself in the very same Bellevue ward—raises questions about the level of care and the quality of the training of the correction officers who staff these wards.

Noonan was able to hang himself by slipping down to the end of a hallway on the ward and securing a sheet to a gate. A jail guard assigned to monitor that section of the hallway was not at his post. Following Noonan's death, the Correction Department affixed wire mesh to all of the gates on the ward.

But Miller's death was no suicide, and yet it raised little notice at the time. His body lingered at the city morgue for months because no one could find his next of kin. It's not clear whether the city did anything to locate the family.

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