With the India Cummings death shifting toward a criminal investigation, a crowd turned out Thursday night in the Delavan Grider Community Center to discuss the case.
Erie County District Attorney John Flynn announced a court order allowing evidence from his office to be shared with the state attorney general. The AG's office says it will anounce within two weeks if it has jurisdiction in Cummings' death.
If the AG takes on the case, it will be under an executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo - the same order used to investigate the deaths of two men in separate incidents involving Buffalo Police officers.
Flynn asked Erie County Judge Susan Eagan to appoint a special prosecutor if the AG does not take the case. He said there would need to be a special prosecutor because a staffer in his office is married to a sheriff's deputy who works at the Holding Center.
A state investigation of Cummings' death called it a "homicide due to medical neglect." In February 2016, Cummings was arrested by Lackawanna Police and held on $15,000 bail at the Erie County Holding Center for more than two weeks, before her eventual death at Buffalo General Medical Center. Before the state investigation, the county medical examiner had listed the cause of death as "undetermined."
County Legislature Majority Leader April Baskin said her community needs to know what is going on at the Holding Center.
"Statistically, we see that they find themselves in the Holding Center at more of a rate than other demographics. I feel like my people suffer," Baskin said, "and when we look at people who have mental health issues, whether they are taking their own life or not, 24 deaths in the tenure of our sheriff is far too much."
Baskin said she is preparing legislation to create an independent county body to monitor the Holding Center and expects that to be part of a series of bills to be filed soon about the downtown cell block.
Meeting attendee Baba Eng said Cummings' death is a test of community values, because of the long-term death toll at the Holding Center.
"During the tenure of Sheriff Howard, over 20 deaths that have been unexplained, that they have made excuses for, that they have blamed victims for, that they have blamed families for, that they have blamed it on everything but holding the people responsible accountable," Eng said.
Public Defender Miles Gresham said cases like this define a nation.
"We have an opportunity here, but it's an opportunity that we are about to miss and that to answer the question of what kind of country are we? What kind of county are we?" Gresham said. "Are we a county where people who aren't convicted of crimes are imprisoned and left to die or not? Are we a county? Are we a country where the people who leave those folds to die are held account or not?"