As county probes 2 deaths, freeholders urge Legislature to update autopsy rules

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In the midst of two deaths being probed, the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders passed a measure urging the state Legislature to update the State Medical Examiner’s Act, which details the circumstances in which autopsies are performed.

Jersey City Freeholder Bill O’Dea (D-2), the vice chairman of the board, explained the significance of the resolution – which was unanimously approved (9-0).

“In cases, like one we recently had at the death in the jail, one of the detainees, we have autopsies done. Often families are not aware. I spoke to the administrator before, while we don’t have this as a state law yet, we at a minimum, should be notifying next of kin,” O’Dea said.

“Let’s hope we don’t ever, but God forbid we have to. It’s their right to request, ask for an autopsy. But I think this is an important piece of legislation, I know that Assemblyman Mukherji’s (D-33) office and Assemblyman Chiaravalloti’s (D-31) office are already working on it.”

Rolando Meza Espinoza, being held at Hudson County jail after being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), died due to gastrointestinal bleeding on June 10th.

As The Record first reported, the State Medical Examiner’s Office never performed an autopsy on Espinoza.

According to the State Medical Examiner’s Act, an autopsy currently only needs to be performed when there’s “compelling public necessity” such as the criminal investigation of a homicide, the death is a “substantial threat” to public health or the death of jail inmate.

Just over a month later, Jennifer Towle, 48, died inside of the correctional facility, with many believing her death came shortly after sustaining a head injury from falling off her bunk.

New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice Outreach Coordinator Dina Mansour said deaths like Espinoza’s could be prevented if they rescinded the controversial 287g agreement.

“Hudson County has the opportunity to become the state leader and model and we are fully supportive of making this a reality. It is important to reiterate that the community has been wanting Hudson County to take these steps for quite a while now, it’s unfortunate that it took deaths for this to happen,” Mansour said.

“The fact of the matter is there are necessary steps the county can take – and only the county can take. The opportunity now is ripe to show this leadership for the Hudson County community and we’re committed to supporting you in this every step of the way.”

Troy Mack, of Veterans for American Ideals, asked to hear the preliminary results of the freeholder committee investigating the deaths of Espinoza and Towle.

“You see many are assembled, at least a report, as preliminary and incomplete as it might be, chairman, from the oversight to the deaths of Jennifer Towle and Rolando Meza Espinoza,” Mack requested.

Last month, the freeholders launched two committees to investigate the recent deaths. At the same meeting, the board hired Ron Edwards as the new jail director.

“While we are certainly grateful for the work so that, God forbid, someone else in detention suffers a death, that they know they have the opportunity of an autopsy. We’d like to know if the county executive and other officers of the executive branch have provided these freeholders with the autopsy of Jennifer Towle.”

On August 7th, Hudson County View submitted an Open Public Records Act request with the county asking for copies of the death certificates of Espinoza and Towle, but we were told there were no records responsive to our request.

Additionally, O’Dea agreed that the 287g agreement needed to be re-examined, also noting that the county was working on a resolution recognizing Hudson as a fair and welcoming community.