Unhealthy situation? Friends question jailed man's death
It had been over 40 years since Jimmy Gunn had been behind bars, and he was terrified of going back. He began telling friends that it wasn't fair that a 60-year-old with myriad health problems couldn't serve his 30-day marijuana sentence on house arrest. He even called the Hook to complain about what America's war on drugs was doing to him. And six days after entering the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail, he was dead.
But a marijuana sales conviction last fall coupled with a 1969 possession conviction may have given authorities little option.
Gunn had a history of poor health. He was bipolar, took medication for panic attacks, and relied on an inhaler to treat his emphysema, according to friends and family.
Still, to his friend Teague Herren, Gunn seemed healthy enough when Herren drove Gunn to court on December 9. They were hoping the judge would consider a motion for home electronic monitoring and a restricted driver's license. Instead, Gunn was taken to jail.
"I dropped him off at court, and a week later he's dead," says Herren, "for a pot charge."
Gunn was an artisan carpenter whose work graced the home of the late Dave Matthews Band saxophonist LeRoi Moore. But after a bout of cancer, Gunn had relied on disability insurance, and friends suspect he supplemented his income by selling pot.
According to his attorney, Jessica Phillips, who filed the motion requesting home monitoring, Albemarle Circuit Court Judge Cheryl Higgins and the Commonwealth's Attorney were open to Gunn serving his time at home as long as the jail said he qualified.
It seems that in 1969 Gunn was convicted of possession of marijuana for five grams of marijuana, which is roughly the equivalent of a "dime bag," ten dollars worth of pot. Then it was a felony. Today, it would be a misdemeanor.
Phillips checked with jail officials, and says she was told Gunn was wouldn't qualify for house arrest due to his prior conviction, even though though it was handed down during the Nixon Administration. And even though he was in very poor health, according to Gunn's ex-wife Debbie Davis.
"He wanted home arrest," says Davis. "Given his age and his health, and given it was only for pot, I don't understand why he wasn't given it."
Gunn's recent legal troubles began last year after he sold marijuana to an undercover officer. After that, the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement Task Force raided his house and found approximately four pounds of pot in dozens of plastic baggies, according to an inventory sent to a forensic lab. An old shotgun added an additional charge: possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
Anyone who is convicted of a reefer offense in Virginia automatically loses his driver's license for six months. That posed an additional hardship on Gunn's ability to get his medications. He'd lived in the same Barboursville cottage for 30 years, but after his October 6 conviction, he was evicted.
When they learned that Gunn's death followed the confiscation of his ever-present inhaler, some of Gunn's friends initially cast blame in the direction of the Jail.
However, Colonel Ron Matthews, the Jail superintendent, notes that Gunn had been placed on suicide watch December 12 because he'd tried to harm himself with a plastic fork. It was shortly after 11pm the next day, when Gunn told an officer that he was cold, says Matthews.
"Five minutes later, the officer finished his work and went to check on him," says Matthews. "He was unresponsive."
According to court records, Gunn was in a coma when he was taken to UVA Medical Center and placed on a respirator. On December 14, the charges against him were dismissed, and his family and friends were able to see him. The next day, he was taken off the respirator and died.
Prisoners with medical issues "get better care in jail than they do out on the street," says Colonel Matthews. When inmates are on suicide watch, they aren't allowed to have items that they could potentially harm themselves with, like inhalers, and they're checked every 10 to 15 minutes, he says.
"As an administrator," says Matthews, "that's the worst thing that can happen when someone under your care dies."
The medical examiner determined that Gunn died from a pulmonary embolism–- a blood clot from the leg that blocks the main artery to the lungs.
Gunn's emphysema would not have been a factor in the pulmonary embolism, says Dr. Samuel Coughron, who was Gunn's doctor and who had prepared a letter for the jail detailing his patient's condition.
"In general, when something like this happens, you're screwed," says Coughron. "You're dead before you hit the floor."
Jimmy Gunn's family and friends still are grappling with his death, and some remain concerned about whether an inability to get his medications and inhaler could have played a role in his death.
"It was a needless death," says Teague Herren. "He wasn't suicidal."
–updated 11:30am with Gunn's November call to the Hook
–edited 11:25pm on Sunday, January 22