The office of the New Mexico Medical Examiner (NM OMI) has released a third autopsy on a migrant Honduran transgender woman whose death in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody sparked controversy over allegations of abuse, but the new report is being met with skepticism among advocates who are still demanding more answers.
Roxsana Hernandez, who was 33 when she died in May of last year, was seeking asylum in the US when she was placed in ICE custody earlier that month. She was moved from California to Washington State and then to Cibola County Correctional Center, which is ICE’s private federal prison for men in New Mexico. She was initially hospitalized after experiencing diarrhea and vomiting, and she was subsequently transferred to Lovelace Medical Center, where she died in the intensive care unit.
The latest autopsy on Hernandez concluded that she died of complications due to HIV/AIDS and classified “the manner of death as natural,” which contradicted a previous autopsy that found evidence of injuries consistent with abuse.
The evidence of mistreatment was revealed through an autopsy carried out by an independent forensic pathologist, who noted that she suffered bruises consistent with abuse by a baton and other bruises caused by being shackled for long periods of time. ICE told Gay City News in November that any allegations of abuse were “false,” and ICE said its own autopsy “confirmed that she suffered from a history of untreated HIV. At no time did the medical personnel treating Ms. Hernandez at Cibola General Hospital or Lovelace Medical Center raise any issues of suspected physical abuse.”
In the most recent autopsy, NM OMI said fractures to Hernandez’s ribs and sternum were “consistent with a series of at least 10 cardiac arrests” and several rounds of CPR, which led to a low platelet count that the examiner said “would amplify the bleeding associated with physically forceful CPR.”
“This case has taken almost a year to close because the autopsy was complex and required additional testing and consultation,” said Dr. Kurt Nolte, who is the chief medical investigator for NM OMI. “We wanted to ensure we answered all the questions we could about Ms. Hernandez’s death,”
However, page 11 of the NM OMI autopsy reveals “blunt injury” to Hernandez’s head — a key piece of information that was never mentioned in the examiner’s press release. When asked about that injury, the NM OMI declined any further comment on Hernandez’s autopsy.
The Transgender Law Center (TLC), which sent a Notice of Wrongful Death Tort Claim stating that Hernandez did not receive medically necessary treatment, noted the omission of blunt force trauma and further blasted the NM OMI for presenting a number of “demonstrable factual inaccuracies,” including the date when Hernandez entered custody as well as the date when she received medical treatment. TLC said ICE had withheld those dates in its detainee death review and the organization slammed the examiner for presenting the findings to ICE before showing Hernandez’s family and lawyers.
An ICE spokesperson on April 10 declined a request for any further comment beyond statements provided in November.
“It’s disturbing that instead of acknowledging their role in creating the conditions that led to her death, ICE has instead focused on criminalizing Roxsana,” said Jorge Gutierrez, executive director of Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement. “From dead-naming her in this autopsy report to not engaging with the information previously presented by Roxsana’s family’s legal team, it’s clear that the NM OMI report offers an incomplete and convenient for ICE narrative that does not offer the final word on who is responsible for Roxsana’s death.”
Andrew Free, an attorney who has vigorously defended Hernandez and was involved in the wrongful death tort, said characterizing the newest autopsy as a comprehensive investigation “is completely disingenuous.”
“We made weekly calls to the Office of the Medical Investigator for months,” Free said. “If they’d truly wanted to grapple with the information detailed in the independent autopsy report or medical records we uncovered through our investigation all they had to do was ask.”
Among other concerns, Free said the pathologist who carried out the NM OMI autopsy did not conduct “the dissection that originally revealed the deep tissue injuries found during an independent autopsy nor reviewed the underling photographs taken of that autopsy” and did not explain the injuries caused by handcuffs.
Moving forward, Free and TLC said they are working with a team of leading medical practitioners to obtain more information about the autopsy.