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Grieving family demands answers

By William P. Muhammad | Last updated: Dec 11, 2019 - 12:00:40 PM

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ROCKFORD, Ill.—Family and friends of 35-year-old Eugene Washington, a South Side resident of Rockford, Illinois and father of four, are demanding answers from the Winnebago County Sheriff and the state’s attorney’s office after his sudden and mysterious death after spending nearly two months in the county jail without incident.

Family of Eugene Washington, from right: Eugene Lindsey, father; Bettye Jackson-Norman, grandmother and Anthony O. Ford, uncle.

“I went to see my son at 4:30 that evening at the coroner’s office (from) behind the glass,” said Eugene Lindsey, while explaining the trauma of receiving news that left him with more questions than answers.

“They had his body wrapped up all the way to his chin, and they had his head wrapped up, and from the way they had him positioned, I could only see parts of his face,” Mr. Lindsey said. “Once they released his body to the funeral home, the same day, I immediately went to see him, and I was able to see the knots and bruises; and on the right side it was swollen from his forehead to the side of his face,” the aggrieved father said.

Upon viewing what he believed to be signs of trauma to his son’s body, and statements to the contrary from the coroner’s office, Mr. Lindsey asked his brother to photograph additional marks and bruises he observed on Mr. Washington’s body. According to his Oct. 29 telephone call with the coroner, Mr. Lindsey said the autopsy revealed no signs of heart attack, aneurysm and no signs of foul play. The toxicology report also returned negative.

“I used to be a 13-year volunteer firefighter, so I had a lot of dealings with the County of Winnebago, especially on car accidents and notifications, and they try to do notifications to the families immediately,” said Anthony O. Ford, uncle of Eugene Washington. He photographed the body and questioned why authorities were late in notifying Mr. Washington’s grandmother, his designated next-of-kin. Mr. Washington died Oct. 28.

“If they listed the death at 5:30 in the morning, I’ve never seen that long of a notification to find the family to tell them your loved one has died,” he said.

Mr. Washington was in nearly daily contact with his grandmother, but Mr. Ford said she wasn’t officially notified of her grandson’s death until around 12:30 p.m., on Oct. 28, seven hours after officials said he died. Mr. Ford said his nephew had been held in pretrial confinement prior to his death. He was arrested in September for probation violation related to a domestic violence charge and was in the process of negotiating a plea bargain through a public defender. According to his father, the court considered Mr. Washington a flight risk and required a bond too high for him to pay. His court appointed attorney, Robert Simmons was unavailable for comment.

Mr. Ford told The Final Call his nephew expressed neither fear nor concern for his personal safety, and that his nephew had spoken to his grandmother by telephone the day before his death.

“He called me every day, sometimes twice a day,” Bettye Jackson- Norman said of her grandson. “He always called to check on me. If I wasn’t feeling good, he would call again to check on if I’m OK. He would want to talk to his brothers and sister, and he wanted to talk with his kids, a 13-year-old, a 10-year-old, two-years-old and a two-week-old baby,” she said.

“He would be in good spirits, he would let me know when his money was kind of low so I could put money on the books, so he could continue his phone calls, so he could stay in contact with me. He was, ‘I want you to be OK, Granny, so I can keep checking on you,’ and that was it,” Mrs. Jackson-Norman said of their final conversation.

Beyond, race, class or color, the mysterious and questionable nature of Eugene Washington’s sudden and unexpected death continues to raise questions over inmate safety and supervision as Rockford’s WIFR channel 23 reported another death in the Winnebago County Jail on Dec. 1, when a 26-year-old White male was reportedly found hanged in his cell.

Mr. Lindsey said he retained the Chicago-based Romanucci & Blandin Law firm to help his family find answers and to navigate the stressful process of seeking justice. Representatives of the firm were not available for comment by Final Call presstime.

Eugene Washington with his niece, Savannah.

John Tac Brantley, a Rockford community activist and organizer who regularly addresses justice issues at county board meetings and at city hall, called for transparency in the investigation of Mr. Washington’s death and said it is very important for the public to know what is going on within the walls of the Winnebago County Justice Center. He believes for justice to be served local residents must be informed of what actually happened.

Mr. Brantley said the Winnebago- Boone County Integrity Task Force was created after the 2009 police killing of Mark Anthony Barmore inside a Rockford church. The task force is a way for local law enforcement to examine how it handles fatal police involved shootings.

“The state’s attorney represents the sheriff’s department to the Winnebago County Board, and I’m just a voice that speaks up against injustice,” Mr. Brantley said. “I’m just a vessel with some knowledge of the system and I think that those who don’t know the system, don’t know their rights and we don’t know how many other incidents have gone on behind those walls,” he added.

“Whenever there is an in-custody death or an officer-related shooting, or use of deadly force, whether or not a death occurs, the Winnebago-Boone County Integrity Task Force is activated,” State’s Attorney Marilyn H ite Ross told The Final Call in a telephone interview.

“With the death of Mr. Washington, since he was in the Winnebago County Jail, under the sheriff’s jurisdiction, those officers are excluded from participating in the investigation (and) then I make a determination based upon what is brought to me, regarding the investigation,” she stated.

The creation of the task force is designed to bolster the credibility of investigations. Atty. Hite Ross agreed with the importance of improving access to its procedures and creating a more user-friendly, on-line presence. “We do have a strong position on transparency, and I am in the process of updating our website so that it is an information hub and individuals will have access to that information readily,” she said.

Atty. Hite Ross did not give a timeframe for completing the investigation into Mr. Washington’s death, but said her recommendations will be based upon their findings which are pending.

“That in-custody death, which is how it is categorized, is now an open investigation,” Atty. Hite Ross said. “Once the investigation is completed and brought to me for review, then I make a determination based upon what’s brought to me regarding the investigation.”

After failed attempts by Mr. Lindsey to secure answers regarding his son’s death and the subsequent denial of his Freedom of Information Act requests, the Illinois Office of the Attorney General, in a letter dated Nov. 27, instructed the Winnebago County Sheriff to provide its office with unredacted copies of records to include audio and/or video recordings for confidential review within seven business days of the letter.

Expressing gratitude to the attorney general’s office, Mr. Lindsey said his optimism is reserved until his questions are answered. “I can’t be happy until I receive that Freedom of Information (disclosures),” he said. “Until I receive that, I’m going to still feel uneasy.”

It is the responsibility of both the government and the governed to establish, maintain and respect basic standards of conduct, said Student Minister Yahcolyah Muhammad, local coordinator for the Nation of Islam’s Rockford Study Group. Questions surrounding Mr. Washington’s death should not focus on why he was confined, he argued.

Once a person is in government custody, basic standards of human decency should motivate an inquiry when a death occurs, explained Student Minister Muhammad.

“We (all) have a right to be treated humanely, professionally, respectfully, and safely when we are in the custody of the authorities,” he said. “At the end of the day, what happened while he was in your custody?”