Crime: Marijuana Possession. Sentence: Death.

TJIC alerts us to the tremendously disturbing story of Jonathan Magbie, a 27-year-old quadriplegic sentenced to ten days in jail for his first offense — possession of marijuana, a misdemeanor. Because the Washington D.C. jail was incompetent to meet his special medical needs, including his dependence on a ventilator, that was a death sentence — Magbie was dead within four days.

The law makes Judge Judith Retchin absolutely immune for sending Magbie to his foreseeable — in fact, probable — death. But she is morally culpable. I submit that it is not an exaggeration to say that Judge Judith Retchin murdered Jonathan Magbie. As one might say in a twisted real-life game of Clue, it was Judith Retchin, in the courtroom, with a brutally indifferent and incompetent prison system.

Shaw said "the worst sin towards our fellow creatures is not to hate them, but to be indifferent to them; that's the essence of inhumanity." Indifference and pretended helplessness, more than direct coercion, are the tools of bureaucratic tyranny both petty and grand. Indifference and learned incompetence kills people in government custody all of the time, or at least stands by as they are brutalized. Each person responsible for putting or keeping or caring for the prisoner there can shrug and hold up their hands and plausibly say "What can I do? I didn't make the system, and I can't do anything about it. I just do my job and go home at the end of the day." This, they believe, absolves them of moral culpability for shoving someone into a disordered system.

Hence Judge Judith E. Retchin can sentence a first-time marijuana offender to jail despite knowing that the jail is completely unable to meet his needs, and despite the fact that the prosecutor doesn't want him in jail for that reason; she can tell herself she's simply a gear grinding away in a larger machine she does not control. There can be no doubt of Retchin's knowledge of the situation:

Retchin understood the implications when she decided to incarcerate someone who used a wheelchair and needed a ventilator to breathe while sleeping. Months before his sentencing, Retchin called Magbie to a status hearing. He attended in a motorized wheelchair that he operated with his mouth.

"Mr. Magbie," asked Retchin, "are you able to raise your right hand to take an oath?"

"No," he said.

Retchin was reminded three times by the prosecutor that Magbie was a quadriplegic and that the prosecution didn't want to try him or send him to jail.

· Malek Malekghasemi, associate medical director at the city's Correctional Treatment Facility when Magbie entered the D.C. jail, called Retchin's office and asked that she order that Magbie be sent to a hospital because the jail's medical facilities could not meet his needs.

"Minutes later [Retchin's clerk] called me and said [the] judge will not issue such an order," Malekghasemi said.

He next called the Corrections Department's counsel and spoke with an assistant. "I asked if they could possibly help me to convince the judge that I need to move this gentleman out of CTF to Greater Southeast Hospital. . . . I did not get a call back," he said.

The judge did not listen or care about Magbie's circumstances in court, and did not respond to calls from the jail officials best able to evaluate whether they could care for him. The resulting chain of events, as I said, was closer to probable than possible, as anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with the jail system would know.

The effective death sentence was not the first time Judge Retchin showed indifference to Magbie's condition. Pneumonia is a deadly threat to quadriplegics. But what does Retchin care about that?

Judge: Good morning. Where is Mr. Magbie?

Lawyer: Your Honor, I wonder if the court would consider waiving his presence; he was hospitalized. He's not hospitalized right now, but he was released earlier in the week having had a bout of pneumonia.

Judge: No, I would not waive his presence. He needs to be here.

Lawyer: I'll see if I can get him here later in the day, your honor. But, could we waive his presence just for purposes of scheduling matters and then I'll have him. . . .

Judge: I'll issue a warrant for his arrest. It will be no bond as to Mr. Magbie. "

Colbert King of the Washington Post has been widely and justifiably praised for following this story and asking hard questions:

These questions need answering.

Why on earth should Jonathan, a first-time offender who had lived most of his life in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic and who required virtually round-the-clock nursing, have been sent to jail for simple possession of marijuana?

Why is it that even after the Corrections Department learned on Monday that inmate Jonathan Magbie needed a medical device the jail did not have and would not provide, and even after an associate medical director determined on Tuesday that Jonathan's medical condition weighed against jail incarceration — why is it that he nonetheless languished in jail until Friday, the day he died?

Our friend TJIC is fond of the rhetorical flourish of saying "rope!" after reporting government misconduct, suggesting that the world would be a better place if many of the people who abuse their state authority wound up dangling from a lamppost. I usually pass that without comment, thinking it excessive — in no small part because I used to be a government official.

Not this time. Rope.

Follow-up 12/13: Today Patrick has a variation on the same theme that is, believe it or not, even more appalling —a story of how incompetent and indifferent federal stooges let a man die of penile cancer.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Patrick says

    If a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, Judge Retchin's must be particularly little.

    It's a shame that the word "Pharisee" has gone out of fashion, as it describes Judge Judith E. Retchin of the D.C. Superior Court almost as well as "murderer."

    Rope indeed.

  2. Clint says

    Truly a dick move by the judge, but why did the prosecutor even bring this before a judge to begin with? Isn't it within the DA's power to plead this down to a fine?

  3. astonied says

    Having been a RT and spent much of my career working with ventilator patients I have to say that dying from not being connected, not being suctioned, having dials turned the wrong way, etc. is akin to torture. That judge should be charged with murder.

    "Principles of justice are principles that rational, self-interested people would choose to govern the society in which they were going to live, provided that they did not know, at the time they chose the principles, exactly what their own place in society would be" – James Rachel's forward to John Rawl's book, Two Concepts of Rules.

  4. Patrick says

    The facts set forth in this article are drawn from the Washington Post. See the links above, AJ. If you have a problem with what Ken wrote here, complain to the Post. That's where he got the information.

    As to Judge Retchin's (what an appropriate name – shades of Nurse Ratchit!) judgment, or lack thereof, agreed. She should have given the defendant a stern lecture, and a fine, and then gone home to her husband, or significant other, or dog, and said, "Christ, I wish they'd repeal the marijuana laws. Do you know what I almost had to do today? There was this quadriplegic marijuana defendant who needs a ventilator to breathe, and if I'd sent him to jail…"

    But then you and I wouldn't be having this interesting conversation, and Jonathon Magbie, well, I'm not sure what he'd be doing. Probably killing himself with marijuana, but it would be his choice, not Judge Retchin's.

  5. DMM says

    What a horrible sequence of events. There is no excuse for any kind of sentence that would leave a person without medical care that they need to survive.

    As someone pointed out to me, when I reposted the article, this happened in 2004. I hadn't noticed the date on the story. Has there been any update in the interim? Have the people whose action or inaction contributed to this needless death been made to answer for their horrendous decision-making? I hope so.

  6. Charles says

    There are many tragedies in the world, and this court case involving Jonathan Magbie rates high amongst them. Paralyzed from the neck down since he was four years old by a drunk driver, he managed somehow to tell the truth to an immoral reprobate whose responce was to sentence Mr. Magbie to four days of torture until God took his soul to rest. Superior Court Judge Judith Retchin, nominated by George Bush Senior sends Jonathan, who suffered so much in his short 27 years, to four days of hell before he passed away because he refused to lie about a medicine that helped him in so many ways, while G. Bush Senior's own son admitted in a taped interview that he likes to smoke marijuana recreationally, continues to serve as a Superior Court Judge putting people in wheelchairs in prison. Jonathan, may you're free, and awake soul walk among angels who will keep you're spirit high, and protect you in the fresh mountain air, and clean waters of heaven.

  7. chuck says

    question… the hell does a quadriplegic get caught with weed? who busted him? how does he smoke it in the first place?how was he even able to get it? of i understood correctly, he cant use his arms, so does some one help him puff? where was he when he was caught with it? these are the true questions.