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An Ashland man asks why no one will admit responsibility for his brother's death.

A Death Obscured


William Edward "Doug" Jones Jr. was a frail, 66-year-old man with a child's mind. He spoke few words, naming things either "hurt" or "good." He hummed Christmas melodies with perfect pitch.

He lived for 58 years in the Central Virginia Training Center, the largest state institution for the mentally retarded. On Sept. 6, 1999, shortly after midnight, he died of massive internal injuries in a Lynchburg hospital.

Why did a half-blind, harmless man die bruised and bleeding? That's what Doug Jones' brother, Ashland resident Henry Jones, has been trying to discover for two years.

In 1999, a doctor working for the state institution where Doug Jones died wrote that pancreatitis, a gland inflammation, killed him. Yet an investigation earlier this year by the State Police and the Department of Rights for Virginians with Disabilities reported that Jones hadn't died of natural causes at all.

Instead, the medical examiner's report was revised in April to say Doug Jones had died by violent means, including "blows, kicks and gouges to the abdomen, as well as falls either to the ground or against protuberant objects." The investigation also revealed a murky account of events leading up to the last days of Jones' life.

In August, Henry Jones, aided by Norfolk lawyer William D. Breit, filed a wrongful-death suit for $1.5 million against the state, the training center and its employees, among other defendants. The suit alleged that Doug Jones' caretakers failed to diagnose and treat the injuries that killed him.

Breit and Jones were hopeful that the suit would force the state to take responsibility for Doug Jones' death. But on Nov. 2, the Virginia Supreme Court issued a formal opinion that the state is not liable for the actions of its employees when those employees are caring for people admitted to a state hospital by court order.

"That's an absurd result," Breit says, "because anyone who is committed has a right to reasonable care and treatment." He says the court's decision means people committed to state mental facilities have little protection under the law.

Staunton lawyer Randall T. Perdue disagrees. He represented the state in the case that sparked the Virginia Supreme Court's opinion, Patten v. Commonwealth. Perdue says it's nothing new for the state to guard its immunity in cases like Jones,' and that the court's decision won't affect conditions in state facilities.

"This is not approving lax standards at all," Perdue says, pointing out that Jones, and plaintiffs in similar cases, could still file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the individuals at fault in an alleged wrongful death.

Yet the Supreme Court opinion solidly confirms the state's immunity, says Stephen W. Bricker, the attorney who represented Patten's estate. "That's the final nail the Supreme Court put in the coffin," he says.

Still, Jones may yet have a shot at convicting anyone culpable in his brother's death, because his case differs from Patten's and other legal precedents.

At the heart of the case, though, a mystery remains: What killed Doug Jones?

He was committed to the state hospital at age 8, in the winter of 1941. It was rare for specialists to diagnose patients with mental disabilities or illness. Doug Jones' parents simply took him to the courthouse in Prince Edward County. There, the magistrate peered at him and wrote a court order for commitment.

"They had this form and they crossed off 'feeble-minded,' 'idiotic' or 'epileptic,'" Breit says with quiet ire. "They said, 'He's an idiot.'" Doug was taken away.

Under state care, Jones grew up. Fifty-eight years went by. Then on the evening of Sept. 5, 1999, someone found him unconscious in the bathroom, "pale white and sweaty-palmy," Henry Jones recounts. More than an hour later, doctors decided to take him to the Lynchburg hospital.

He underwent surgery, and doctors discovered massive internal bleeding and the ruptured spleen. One of the attending physicians called Henry Jones to tell him his brother was in grave condition and it looked like he had suffered blunt-force trauma. Doug Jones died that night. He was buried on the center's grounds.

The training center's administrators stated that Doug Jones injured himself, perhaps while struggling at a dentist's appointment on Aug. 31. But Henry Jones says it would have been "impossible" for his 5-foot-9, 130-pound brother to be strong enough to rupture his own spleen and then walk around for a few days before dying.

"I guess the biggest hurt he ever done was throw up his hands and holler," Jones says. "He didn't fight. He couldn't hurt nobody."

Henry Jones argues that the training center staffers tried to force his brother to do something he didn't want to, like bathe before bedtime. "They shut Doug up and made him be quiet and that's when he got hurt," Jones says, his voice heavy. "That's what I believe."

The director of the training center did not return Style's calls.

Jones refused to let the matter rest. He filed suit under the 1981 Virginia Tort Claims Act, which allows citizens to sue the state of Virginia.

But the wording of the act guarantees the state's immunity in claims "based on an act or omission of an officer, agent or employee of any agency of government in the execution of a lawful order of any court."

Remember the magistrate who wrote a court order when Doug Jones was 8, committing him as an "idiot"? That long-ago decision means the state is not responsible for his death because his caretakers were executing a "lawful order."

But that rule does not apply across the board. While the Supreme Court has made it clear that retarded people committed to state hospitals aren't protected by the Tort Claims Act, it ruled last year that criminals in state correctional facilities are.

In a 2000 decision, Whitley v. Commonwealth, the court ruled that employees who provided medical care to a man who died while incarcerated were not executing a lawful order of a court, but were simply doing their job. The employees and the state were therefore liable in the prisoner's death.

Those seemingly inconsistent rulings are confusing, says Breit, Jones' lawyer. "They made a distinction that is unexplainable to me," he says, because Doug Jones was no criminal, yet "he has less rights than a prisoner."

But arguing won't do much good now, Breit says. There's little chance the official opinion will be rescinded. "This is it," he says. "End of the road." He plans to keep working for Jones and to try to pass legislation that will clarify the language of the Tort Claims Act.

As the facts of Doug Jones' death recede into the past, Henry Jones is starting to doubt whether the case will ever be resolved. But he'll continue the fight. "They owe me compensation," he says, shaking his head, "whether I ever get a penny or not."

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