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Inmate’s Suicide Debated at Trial

July 27, 2011

By Phil Ray (pray@altoonamirror.com)
The Altoona Mirror

JOHNSTOWN – The suicide of a Blair County Prison inmate was “predictable” and “preventable,” an attorney for the man’s family told a federal jury Tuesday

Jeremy Corbin, 32, of Bellwood suffered from severe depression and other mental health issues when he was admitted to prison on the morning of Oct. 18, 2006, and tests administered by a corrections officer showed that Corbin was a suicide risk, attorney Andrew J. Shubin of State College said.

Corbin was placed in a special cell for inmates at risk but was released later that day into the general jail population by the prison’s forensic specialist, Jennifer Feathers, who determined he wasn’t at a risk.

Two days later, Corbin ended his life by using a bed sheet in his cell to hang himself.

During an emotional opening statement, Shubin said that had Corbin been allowed to stay in the suicide prevention cell in the prison, which had no bed sheets, he may be alive today.

The jury was shown a picture of Corbin and his family in better times, just two years before his suicide, when the family moved into a new home in Bellwood.

Pictures of the cells in which Corbin was housed in the Blair County Prison were displayed.

With Corbin’s widow, Kayci Lynn Tatsch-Corbin, in tears, Shubin asked that the couple’s four children come into the courtroom.

He introduced each child to the jury, and concluded his opening statement by saying, “These are the survivors left behind. These are my clients. These are who I am fighting for.”

Shubin is asking damages from Feathers, contending she was not qualified to assess Corbin’s suicide risk. The lawsuit also seeks damages from Blair County and PrimeCare Medical Inc. of Harrisburg, which provides medical and mental health care to the county’s inmates.

Feathers’ attorney Louis C. Schmitt Jr., was equally as passionate in his opening statement to the jury.

“I’ll fight for her. I’ll fight for her in this courtroom,” he said.

Feathers did not find that Corbin was a high risk for suicide, Schmitt said. He also emphasized that others involved with Corbin, including a psychiatrist with Nulton Diagnostic of Altoona, who had evaluated Corbin for mental health issues, and a nurse at the prison, who talked to Corbin during his stay, also found he was not a suicide risk.

Schmitt argued that Corbin told Feathers he had threatened suicide after his arrest because he wanted to get his wife’s attention.

Corbin had been committed to the jail after he called his wife on the telephone in violation of a protection-from-abuse order.

Feathers was developing a plan to help Corbin, and her actions in his case did not constitute “deliberate indifference,” Schmitt said, a reference to the legal standard Shubin must meet for the jury to find against her.

County attorney Edmond R. Joyal Jr. of Pittsburgh defended the corrections officers who recognized the risk Corbin presented and took steps to address the risk by placing him in a suicide prevention cell.

“They did the job. They didn’t turn their backs. They didn’t write it off,” Joyal said.

While Feathers worked at the prison evaluating the mental health status of inmates, she was actually employed by Altoona Regional Health System, Altoona Hospital Campus, and was part of PrimeCare’s medical and mental health program at the prison.

PrimeCare attorney John Ninosky that there was no “deliberate indifference” involved in Corbin’s care.

Despite the best efforts of the corrections officers, Feathers and the medical staff, Corbin’s death was a “tragedy that couldn’t be avoided,” he said.

The jury of nine women and three men began hearing testimony late Tuesday afternoon when corrections officer Stephen Dell, the officer who administered the suicide risk test to Corbin, took the stand.

Dell had received information from the office of Magisterial District Judge Fred B. Miller and one of his fellow officers, Scott Wallack, that Corbin was threatening suicide.

During the suicide screening test he administered during the early morning of Oct. 18, Corbin was asked if he was thinking about killing himself.

Corbin said he was, Dell testified.

Dell, now a corrections officer at the State Correctional Institution at Smithfield, asked Corbin, “Are you sure?”

Corbin replied in a flat, unemotional voice, “Yes,” Dell said.

Dell said he was “shocked” at the suicide, and that when he mentioned it to Feathers a few weeks later during a suicide prevention class, she told him Corbin “knew how to play the system.”

Testimony continues this morning in U.S. District Judge Kim Gibson’s courtroom.