Negligence contributed to Palestine Texas woman’s death

by Jeff Gerritt

It’s taken a year, along with 20 freedom-of-information requests, to get any answers about how Anderson County prisoner Rhonda Newsome died.

Last week, the Texas Department of Public Safety released the findings of an investigation that clears Sheriff Greg Taylor and his office of criminal wrongdoing.

The 34-page report, written by Texas Rangers investigator Stephen Baggett, also leads to one inescapable conclusion: Negligence contributed to, or caused, Newsome’s death on June 15 of last year.

Newsome, 50, died in a holding cell at about 5 p.m. – nearly seven hours after Palestine Regional Medical Center informed jail nurse Tim Green that Newsome’s blood tests showed abnormalities that warranted a “critical value response.” That means Newsome could die without immediate medical attention.

The Texas Rangers report does not explain how staff communications broke down between the 10:30 a.m. hospital call and Newsome’s death, about six hours and 20 minutes later.

Under normal circumstances, Newsome should have been in the emergency room about 30 minutes after the hospital informed Green of the blood test results. Adding to the confusion, Green was unsure of the time if he notified jail physician Adam Corley.

Equally troubling, after Newsome stopped breathing at about 5 p.m, jail staff tried to use an automatic electronic defibrillator (AED) on her that didn’t work. The portable device lacked a working battery and adult-sized pads. It also was improperly stored and under a recall.

The defibrillator should have been checked daily. During the investigation, nurse Green said he didn’t know who was responsible for maintaining it.

Newsome died three months after she was jailed on assault charges for attacking a family member with a scissors. Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of her death.

Neither Newsome’s death nor life was easy.

A police arrest report shows Newsome was prescribed medications for high blood pressure, depression, and a thyroid condition. She also underwent psychiatric treatment at Access. A jail suicide assessment form noted the hearing of voices and a previous suicide attempt.

It’s unclear what treatment Newsome received in the Anderson County jail. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards refused to release the findings of its investigation.

The Anderson County Sheriff’s Office also withheld records pertaining to Newsome’s death, including video recording, and asked other agencies to do the same. The Sheriff’s Office even denied Newsome’s medical records to her son.

An autopsy listed the cause of death as complications of Addison’s disease, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and pulmonary emphysema. The autopsy, however, doesn’t explain how Newsome’s death could have been prevented. 

Several former prisoners – one in the holding cell with Newsome – told the Palestine Herald-Press that Newsome, swollen and bleeding from her mouth, asked to see a doctor for at least three days prior to her death.

The Rangers’ report covers only the day Newsome died. Nothing in it suggests Newsome was intentionally harmed.

That should comfort no one. Due largely to negligence, Rhonda Newsome’s arrest for assault turned into a virtual death sentence.

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