A transgender woman who died in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, after being detained in a privately operated detention center, was not physically abused while in custody, according to a report from the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator—despite an independent autopsy that found she had been beaten.
Roxsana Hernández Rodriguez, a 33-year-old transgender woman from Honduras, died on May 25, 2018, after being transferred to an Albuquerque hospital from a private detention center run by CoreCivic. An independent autopsy conducted after her death claimed to find evidence of physical abuse, with “deep bruising” and evidence of blunt-force trauma “indicative of blows, and/or kicks, and possible strikes with blunt object.” Some injuries on her wrist, that autopsy found, were “typical of handcuff injuries.”
But after nearly a year of investigation, Dr. Kurt Nolte, the state’s chief medical investigator, classified Hernandez’s cause of death as natural, due to complications from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.
According to the death investigation summary, Hernandez had a five- to six-month history of untreated infection with HIV, leading to septic shock, dehydration, and emaciation in the months before her detention. A biopsy of one of Hernandez’s lymph nodes demonstrated “multicentric Castleman disease,” a disease of the lymph nodes that behaves much like lymphoma, with an overgrowth of cells in lymphatic tissues throughout the body. Multicentric Castleman disease is not uncommon in people with untreated HIV infection.
According to the findings, Castleman disease eventually lead to Hernandez’s death.
“While a preliminary report from a second autopsy identified soft tissue bleeding over the sides and back of the chest thought to be secondary to physical abuse, we do not share that conclusion,” the office of the medical investigator stated in a release accompanying the death investigation summary. “Ms. Hernandez had extensive fractures of the ribs and sternum (breastbone) consistent with a series of at least 10 cardiac arrests with successful rounds of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) by medical personnel working to save her life.”
“This case has taken almost a year to close because the autopsy was complex and required additional testing and consultation. We wanted to ensure we answered all the questions we could about Ms. Hernandez’s death,” Dr. Nolte said in a statement accompanying the findings. “Our thoughts are with her family and loved ones. We know that releasing her autopsy report will bring a flood of emotions for them. We have done our best to ensure her cause and manner of death were fully investigated to hopefully provide some level of closure.”
Hernández, known as “Roxy” to her friends, traveled more than 2,000 miles alongside 1,300 other migrants seeking asylum in the United States. After arriving at the U.S. border and asking for asylum at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in May, she was taken into custody. After being held for five days, she was transferred to the CoreCivic facility, which houses a dedicated “pod” for transgender women. Less than three weeks after arriving in the U.S., she was dead.
In a statement, the Transgender Law Center, which had advocated on behalf of Hernandez’s family, called the findings “incomplete”
“The NM OMI dragged their feet in releasing Roxsana’s autopsy report only to let ICE run the show and use the report to do their dirty work of shirking responsibility for her care. It’s absolutely appalling that they presented their findings to ICE prior to offering those findings to Roxsana’s family’s legal representatives,” said Lynly Egyes, director of litigation for Transgender Law Center (TLC), about the report.
A CoreCivic spokesperson declined to comment on the specifics of the findings, coting healthcare privacy laws. An ICE spokesperson told The Daily Beast that “the report speaks for itself.”
Following the results of Hernandez’s secondary autopsy in November, the agency disputed the findings.
“ICE takes very seriously the health, safety and welfare of those in our care, including those who come into ICE custody with prior medical conditions or who have never before received appropriate medical care,” the spokesperson said at the time. “Any death that happens in ICE custody is a cause for concern, and the agency will continue its full review of this case according to standard protocols.”