Durham County

Family of teen who died in Durham questions suicide ruling

Uniece Glenae “Niecey” Fennell was full of life, always laughing and joking, said her sister Tarshella Fountain. She lifted up others in jail with her letters and faith and had recently been told she would get out of jail before the end of the year.

Those are some of the reasons that Fountain and others are questioning the Durham County Sheriff’s Office’s contention that Fennell, 17, killed herself in her jail cell on March 23.

“It really surprised our family; that’s just not Niecey,” Fountain, 24, said Friday standing outside the jail with more than 30 people holding signs that said “We need justice now,” “Long live my best friend,” and “This jail kills.”

The Sheriff’s Office has said Fennell, who was charged with murder, died from an apparent suicide.

She was found hanging from a bedsheet attached to a window bar around 2:48 a.m., according to a Sheriff’s Office report. She was last seen alive at 2:18 a.m., the report states.

Sheriff Mike Andrews has asked the State Bureau of Investigation to take over the investigation into the teenager’s death.

In a statement, Fennell’s family asked for an additional, independent investigation, as well as a copy of the SBI report and for the Sheriff’s Office to be held accountable for not addressing the risk of the cell window bars.

Fountain said when she saw Fennell’s body Wednesday, her sister had black, blue and green bruises on her back and both of her sides. There were no bruises around her neck, she said.

Rachelle Shaw, 20, met Fennell in jail. Fennell would slip notes under Shaw’s door. Shaw doesn’t believe Fennell could reach the bars on the window.

“I don’t think she did it,” Shaw said.

Fennell was being held on $5 million bail in the shooting death of Andre Bond on July 10, 2016. Bond was found dead on Woodview Drive in what appeared to have been a drive-by attack.

Sheriff’s statement

In a statement released last week, Sheriff Mike Andrews said he is confident in investigators and the reporting process.

“It’s our duty and obligation to provide a grieving family with answers. Our continued thoughts and prayers are with them at this difficult time. When there’s a loss of life on our watch, we take that seriously,” the statement says.

“Our detectives gather evidence, talk to witnesses, and conduct a thorough investigation of all in-custody deaths,” it continues. “While we appreciate calls for additional details, releasing information prematurely wouldn’t be prudent. We are deliberate in our efforts to protect the privacy of the detainee who died and the integrity of the investigation.”

Fennell’s family also expressed concern about the 17-year-old being held in an adult facility. They said Fennell was being harassed by guards and other inmates. State law allows 16- and 17-year-olds to be jailed but not to share a cell with an adult. Fennell was in a single cell, the Sheriff’s Office has said.

The day before Fennell’s death, her attorney, Alex Charns, had written to jail officials to complain about an unnamed detention officer who he said had called Fennell a “murderer” and inmates “bitches.”

Charns also said officials had not allowed Fennell, jailed since July 26, 2016, to attend her twin brother’s funeral after he was found fatally shot Nov. 1 on East Pilot Street.

Andrews said the detention officer accused of making the comments had resigned two weeks before Charns made his complaint and that Fennell had never filed a complaint through normal jail channels.

There were 12 suicide attempts at the jail in 2015, and 15 in 2014, according to a definition the sheriff’s office uses that includes any “self-harming behavior that could result in death.”

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges