EXCLUSIVE: OCCC employee's widow fights for benefits after death ruled 'homicide'
HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) -
The widow of an Oahu Community Correctional Center social worker who died while intervening in a prisoners' fight nearly ten months ago said she and her family should be eligible for her husband's on-the-job death benefits because the Medical Examiner ruled his death a homicide.
"You shouldn't have to fight for what's rightfully yours. When it was no cause of his. Somebody else caused this. It wasn't him. It wasn't his fault," said Amy Lee, whose late husband Malcolm Lee, Jr., 44, was a psychiatric social worker at OCCC.
The state's industrial injury report said Lee died May 31 after he suffered a fatal heart attack while he was "punched and kicked in his head and chest" by a female inmate at the prison as he helped guards break up a fight between two female prisoners.
"He always considered the ACOs (adult corrections officers) still his brothers and sisters in blue, and he would never leave them hanging. And right now it just feels like the department is leaving him hanging," Lee said. Lee is a former guard.
State prisons officials initially denied any liability for his death last June, pending additional information and a medical determination.
Lee provided Hawaii News Now with both her husband's death certificate and autopsy that later ruled his death a homicide.
The city Medical Examiner said Lee's cause of death was "cardiac arrhythmia due to, or as a consequence of assault while helping to stop altercation."
City pathologist Dr. William Goodhue found other contributing causes included heart disease, diabetes, a fatty liver, hypertension and obesity.
Although Goodhue's autopsy found Malcolm Lee had "multiple risk factors for cardiac arrhythmia, there is no reason to believe that a fatal cardiac arrhythmia would have occurred at the time it did had it not been triggered by extraordinary job stress at the time he was sworn at and assaulted while helping to break up an altercation between prison inmates."
"Homicide is on the death certificate," said Dr. Scott Miscovich, Lee's personal physician for the past 15 years. "How can someone deny that this was not caused by an external force, at work in the work environment? That is the key in this case."
"From my perspective as his doctor, there's no chance that this (heart attack) would just happen to happen on that day, regardless of whether he was at work or not, which is the test that we would look at," Miscovich said.
"He doesn't deserve for his name to be, well, he was just another state employee, fat, overweight. That's not the case," Amy Lee said.
Nearly ten months after her husband's death, the state is still investigating whether the prison incident caused Malcolm Lee's heart attack. There's a lot riding on that decision for Amy Lee, the couple's daughter, 9, and 15-year-old son.
That's because if the state rules her husband's death was accidental, Amy's Lee's monthly surviving spouse pension of $431 will triple, and her children's monthly benefits would increase from $86 to $135. The family would also receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in workers' compensation death benefits as well as funeral and burial reimbursement.
Lee said it's not about the money, but the principle, especially since she claimed OCCC was understaffed the day her husband died. And that's why she said he had to step in and help two corrections officers trying to deal with a prisoners' fight.
"If they're short staffed, these things are going to happen. People are going to get hurt, whether it be staff or inmates. You know, nobody else needs to die," Lee said.
A state prisons spokeswoman would not go as far as to say the facility was adequately staffed but said every "essential post" at OCCC was filled the day Malcolm Lee died.
His widow said: "For us to have to hear people say, 'Oh, he just died of a heart attack.' It's like, 'No, he was doing the right thing. He was helping to prevent somebody else from getting hurt.'"
Because of the confidential nature of both medical and employment information, a Department of Public Safety spokeswoman said the department was unable to substantively respond to Hawaii News Now's inquiry. But the spokeswoman said the department had not yet received the autopsy, completed September 3, or the death certificate, which was finalized and updated last August.