The state Department of Forensic Sciences’ report, released to Anniston police late last week, listed electrolyte imbalances as Ezell’s primary cause of death but shows the 49-year-old Anniston woman suffered from a number of long-term health issues, including diabetes, chronic kidney disease and mild degeneration of the liver.
When a person suffers from electrolyte imbalance, the cells in her body that help to maintain neurological function, oxygen delivery and other vital processes aren’t working correctly, because there is either too much of one type of electrolyte present or not enough of another, according to Dr. Valerie Green, a DFS pathologist and colleague of the Huntsville doctor who performed Ezell’s autopsy.
Green said it’s probable that the electrolyte imbalances that ultimately led to Ezell’s death were related to her history of diabetes and kidney disease, although she couldn’t say for sure.
What’s less clear is whether Ezell’s jail stay, in which she received no medicine for diabetes or kidney disease, exacerbated her medical conditions.
“We’re in the process of subpoenaing additional medical information,” Anniston Police Lt. Rocky Stemen said. “If she had a preexisting medical condition and she did not receive that treatment that may have played a role [in her death].”
The real problem lies in the fact that neither police nor corrections officers knew Ezell had health issues.
That’s because Ezell refused to give out any health information, request medicine or identify a relative for police to call when she was arrested Sept. 11 on a misdemeanor trespassing charge, police said.
As a result of her unwillingness to provide health information, corrections officers never knew Ezell needed medicine for diabetes or kidney problems, Stemen said.
Birmingham resident Grace Ellis, Ezell’s sister, disputes the notion that her sister didn’t inform officers of her diabetes.
“She was very aware and conscientious about taking her medication, I refuse to believe [police didn’t know],” Ellis said. “I’m sure my sister was asking for medicine.”
But Stemen and Chief Layton McGrady said that Ezell never asked for medicine or indicated that she had diabetes or kidney disease.
“But we did have the opinion there were some mental health issues, and tried to address that,” Stemen said.
Arresting officers first became concerned that Ezell had mental issues because she was uncooperative during the arrest and claimed to be President Barack Obama’s mother, a police report shows. As a result, Ezell was first placed in an isolation cell at the jail, where corrections officers could monitor her on 24-hour video surveillance to make sure she did not harm herself. Corrections officers also arranged for a Calhoun-Cleburne Mental Health Board employee to examine Ezell during her incarceration.
That check-up happened Sept. 15, when the mental-health worker determined Ezell needed a more complete exam at a state mental facility. Three days later, corrections officers found Ezell dead in her cell, of electrolyte imbalances according to the newly-released final autopsy report.
Although an internal investigation conducted by police officials revealed that corrections officers followed department procedures and protocol, investigators now want to review those procedures and implement new ones.
A “special needs list” will be the first of those new procedures, McGrady said.
Inmates who refuse to give contact, next-of-kin or health information will be placed on that list, meaning officers will check up on those inmates frequently throughout the day and night and actively pursue ways to identify “special needs” inmates, their families and their health conditions.
Prior to Ezell’s death, there was no policy in place to discover important health information about inmates who refused to provide that information themselves.
“We’ve never really had a problem with this before; in the past, if people had a medical condition or if somebody was sick, they’d ask for medicine,” McGrady said.
Ellis emphasized she’s certain her sister did ask for help and said she’s received calls from inmates who were in jail with her sister as proof.
But Ellis doesn’t understand why Ezell refused to call her when she was arrested and never paid the $300 bail to get out of jail – something Ellis said her sister could easily afford.
“I’m just still trying to process my sister being gone,” said Ellis, who is talking with family members about the possibility of a lawsuit against Anniston police. “We don’t know which way we’re going yet.”
Contact Star Staff Writer Cameron Steele at 256-235-3562.