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Tarrant County approved contract to examine a jail death. Expert says that review never happened

A wide view of a red brick building with small windows, with the words TARRANT COUNTY CORRECTIONS CENTER in large font.
Rodger Mallison
/
Fort Worth Report
Robert Miller died under suspicious circumstances in Tarrant County Jail custody in 2019. Miller's widow Shanelle Jenkins is suing over his death.

Robert Miller died in Tarrant County Jail custody in 2019. A Fort Worth Star-Telegram investigation cast doubt on his stated cause of death, and the county contracted with an outside expert to review his autopsy report.

Story updated 4/22/23 at 5:25 p.m.

The expert that Tarrant County hired to review the autopsy of a man who died under suspicious circumstances in the county jail said that the review never happened, and that the county never sent him any materials to review.

Robert Miller died in Tarrant County Jail custody in 2019.

The county medical examiner’s office declared he died due to sickle cell disease, but aFort Worth Star-Telegraminvestigation found he likely didn’t have sickle cell and suggested his true cause of death was harsh treatment behind bars.

In December, the county hired a forensic pathologist in Illinois, Dr. J. Scott Denton, to review Miller’s autopsy. Denton’s contract expired in February and the county has not released any results, despite calls from the public.

KERA emailed Denton on Thursday and asked if the review ever happened. Denton wrote back Saturday and said no.

"There is no review report. There was no review. The contract expired and no materials were ever sent to me," Denton wrote.

He added that this would be his final response on the matter.

KERA sent in a public records request to the county on April 4, asking for a copy of Denton’s autopsy review. The county said there was no such document available.

On April 6, KERA requested any reports relating to the autopsy review, and emails to and from county officials about Robert Miller and the review. The county is appealing that request to the Texas Attorney General, to see if they are allowed to withhold those records.

KERA has reached out to the county spokesperson, county administrator and county commissioners for comment.

Members of Fort Worth's Broadway Baptist Church have been vocal about jail issues at Commissioners Court, including Reverend Ryon Price, who called for the release of Miller's autopsy review at a meeting earlier this month.

The news that the review didn't happen is "very troubling," Price said in an interview Saturday.

"What results is a further erosion of the public, the public's trust in our county government," Price said. "And I think it also gives further credence to our conviction that the Tarrant County Jail is a serious public health threat, enabled by gross institutional dereliction."

The Tarrant County Jail's treatment of people behind bars has been under scrutiny for years.

Two former county jailers were indicted after they allegedly lied about checking on a man named Javonte Myers, who later died. In 2020, a woman gave birth alone and unattended in her cell. Her baby later died.

Price called on the county to complete the review of Robert Miller's autopsy.

"That would be a start — would be for the county to do what it said it was going to do back in December," he said.

Got a tip? Email Miranda Suarez at msuarez@kera.org. You can follow Miranda on Twitter @MirandaRSuarez.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Miranda Suarez is KERA’s Tarrant County accountability reporter. Before coming to North Texas, she was the Lee Ester News Fellow at Wisconsin Public Radio, where she covered statewide news from the capital city of Madison. Miranda is originally from Massachusetts and started her public radio career at WBUR in Boston.