Suspicious Death Raises Questions

Harford County

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By Stephen Janis and Taya Graham, Special to the AFRO

During the last conversation Marlyn Barnes had with his mother Marilyn on Aril 9th, the 30-yeard old father of five had a single goal: to get out of the Harford County detention center and straighten out the conflict that had put him there.

“He just wanted to come home and get his life together, that does not sound like someone who was about to commit suicide to me,” his mother Marilyn Barnes told the AFRO.

Marlyn Barnes, 30, a father of five died, while he was locked up at the Harford County Detention Center on April 10. The medical examiner ruled his death a suicide. His family members believe his death was the result of foul play. (Courtesy Photo)

But the bright and affable young man never got the chance.  Jail officials say shortly after Barnes was denied bail at around 2:45PM on April 10th, he was found unresponsive in his cell.  

In July the medical examiner ruled Barnes committed suicide.

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But both family and supporters are not satisfied with that ruling, pointing to odd circumstances of Barnes’ case and the history of deaths in the Harford County facility that they say raise troubling questions but the conclusion he suddenly decided to take his own life.   They also say Barnes did not have any history of mental illness or instances of suicidal ideation.

“I just want the truth, whatever it is, I just want to know,” Barnes said. 

The Harford County Sheriff’s office concluded Barnes hung himself in his cell shortly after he was denied bail on charges of first-degree assault related to a domestic dispute.  Investigators determined Barnes used a bed sheet to hang himself the day after he was arrested. 

Barnes was also facing charges of violating a protective order.

But like many of the deaths involving African American men in the custody of law enforcement, the controversy in part centers not only on the evidence, but questions about the investigation itself.  

First there is a two-month delay between when Harford County detectives concluded Barnes killed himself and the autopsy ruling.  A time lapse they say raises troubling questions about the investigation into his death.

“We really want to know why the autopsy was not signed by the medical examiner for two months after it was completed,” Alec Summerfield, an attorney for the family told the AFRO.

A spokesman for the State Medical Examiner’s office declined to comment on what prompted the two-month lapse. 

Summerfield also says the family would like to see video of Barnes entering his cell shortly before he died. 

Then there is the mysterious cellmate who has yet to speak with the family. Investigators told Marilyn Barnes the inmate spoke with her son prior to his death. They claim Barnes discussed taking his own life.

“They said he had talked to his cellmate who said he had talked about it with him,” she said 

For their part the medical examiner’s office says the evidence points to suicide.  In an autopsy ruling released in July, the office confirmed the findings of investigators for the Harford Country Sheriff’s office.  

But there are also larger concerns about the facility itself. Since 2008, there have been a series of suicides in Harford County Detention Center, a jail that generally houses prisoners for brief stints before trial.

“There have been eight suicides in this detention center since 2008, that is incredibly high, these are temporary holding cells.” Summerfield said, 

A Harford County Sheriff spokesman did not return an email seeking comment on the suicides. 

But the family has vowed to keep fighting for answers. Summerfield said they would file a public information request for video of Barnes entering his cell.

There is also a planned protest at the facility.  The Prisoners Solidarity Committee of the Peoples Power Assembly will hold a demonstration there October 4th.