Lawyers: Cops didn't have key as women drowned in police van during Hurricane Florence

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Two women drowned in the back of a locked cage while being taken for involuntary commitment to a mental hospital because the police van they were in took an unsafe route and rolled over, and deputies lacked a key or bolt cutters to get them out, a lawyer for one of the women's families told South Carolina lawmakers Thursday.

The deputies, who drove around barricades and a manned checkpoint and ignored the safer route they had been given to avoid floodwaters from Hurricane Florence, bear plenty of responsibility for the deaths of Wendy Newton and Nicolette Green, said Tommy Brittain, a lawyer for Newton's family. They have been fired and a criminal investigation into their actions is coming to an end.

Neither woman was violent, their advocates said during a Senate subcommittee hearing. Newton was only seeking medicine for her fear and anxiety the day she died, the attorney said, while Green's family said she was committed at a regular mental health appointment by a councilor she had never seen before.

A system in South Carolina that treats nonviolent mental health patients more like criminals also contributed greatly to the women's deaths, Brittain told a state Senate panel Thursday.

"They did wrong, serious wrong," Brittain said of the deputies. "But if she had never been in that cage, she'd be out of that van, she'd be alive today. The people who made those decisions with indifference to her rights are also responsible for her death."

Sheriff's offices don't like the system either because it too often pulls deputies off the street to take people who are safe enough to be transported by ambulances or other means, South Carolina Sheriff's Association Executive Director Jarrod Bruder said.

MORE: Hurricane Florence leaves unprecedented damage; at least 32 killed

A survey of about a third of the state's counties showed 4,200 mental patients have been transported by officers so far this year. Hospitals and doctors often demand deputies to take patients even though the law allows family members or friends to take responsibility for patients who aren't immediate threats to themselves or the community.

The hospitals are trying to avoid legal responsibility, said psychiatrist Christina Lynn.

"Then I spend my first day with them telling them they didn't get arrested," Lynn said.

The Senate subcommittee plans to keep hearing testimony as the General Assembly's session approaches in January. The three members agreed the law needs to be changed, and the Department of Mental Health may need more funds.

Democratic state Sen. Marlon Kimpson said he wanted to call the hearings as soon as possible after the September deaths because they were so horrible.

A criminal investigation into the deputies is coming to an end and a report will be given to prosecutors, State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel said.

Keel refused to give details on the conversation between the deputies and the National Guard troops blocking the highway, the depth of the water the officers were trying to drive through and what the deputies did to try to rescue the women, saying it was part of his agency's investigation.

But Brittain and Green's sister, Donnela Green-Johnson, filled in some of the details Thursday.

Brittain told how what should have been a less than two-hour drive for the women inside the "tiny cage" from Horry County to Darlington had already been delayed by "coffee breaks and detours" when the van drove around a barricade and a manned checkpoint and into a hole in the highway covered with water.

The van rolled to its side, blocking one door. The deputies didn't have the key to open the other, Brittain said.

"No key, no combination, no bolt cutters. No nothing," Brittain said. "He climbed on top to save himself and the other officer and listened as water engulfed the van moment, after moment after moment as each woman saw her death rise in the water."

Green's daughter was with her that day and didn't forcefully request she be allowed to take her mother. Now she feels like she sent her mom to die, Green-Johnson said.

"It was a horrible way for those two women to die. They knew. It was a slow death," Green-Johnson said.