Family of Sharon woman who died in jail want answers

Aug. 18—FINDLEY TOWNSHIP — A 36-year-old woman died in Mercer County Jail almost a month ago, and her family wants answers.

Betty Jean Winston, of Sharon, was in jail on charges of disorderly conduct. On July 26, she was found dead in her cell after being in custody for a few days.

"We don't know what happened, and we're not getting any answers," said Youngstown attorney Dave Betras, who represents Winston's family. "It's not a normal circumstance that someone is in jail for disorderly conduct that long, and a 36-year-old African American woman should not die in jail."

Betras said he has asked Mercer County District Attorney Peter C. Acker to have an outside agency investigate, such as the state police or the state attorney general.

Acker said neither agency would investigate unless he requested it, and there is no reason for it.

"My county detectives, who answer to me, are investigating the death," Acker said.

He said state police do not traditionally investigate incidents at the county jail, but they do investigate reported incidents at the State Correctional Institution at Mercer.

"The attorney general has no jurisdiction over investigations at the jail," Acker said. "Unless I request it, they get involved, and there's no basis for that."

Betras also said that family members were told by inmates that Winston was Tased or maced during her stay at the jail.

"There's no evidence that Betty Winston was ever subjected to mace or a Taser in the county jail," Acker said, adding that if Betras were to provide him with inmate names, county detectives would interview them.

Acker said detectives found that there was nothing suspicious about the death, but the investigation is ongoing.

Acker said the warden called him on the evening of July 26 and told him that Betty Winston was found dead in her cell. Warden Mac McDuffie informed him that emergency medical technicians were called and were unable to revive her.

The body was taken to AHN Grove City hospital, where she was pronounced dead.

At that point, the warden immediately went to the jail and the unit was locked down.

The next morning, the chief county detective went to the jail and began his investigation, Acker said.

"He spoke with the warden, staff members, Prime Care — who is under contract to provide medical services — and reviewed the interior video system," Acker said. "There was nothing that led to a conclusion that it was a suicide or homicide or anything improper had been done."

The body was taken to the Erie County coroner's office for a forensic autopsy. Dr. Eric Vey is a forensic pathologist who conducts many autopsies for several counties.

Toxicology and fluid samples were sent to the lab, and Vey will generate an autopsy report when the samples come back. The report will be sent to Mercer County Coroner John A. Libonati, who will make a final determination as to the cause of death, Acker said.

"We're still a couple months out from that," Acker said. "Until the totality of the investigation is done, the investigation is not closed. People can speculate, but it is the evidence that drives the investigation and it will fall where it falls."

He added that he has prosecuted state correctional officers in the past and will prosecute correctional officers again if necessary.

Betras said the family just wants to know what happened, and have been told nothing.

"It doesn't take that long to do all of this. It will be a month in a couple days since she died," Betras said. "I think the family deserves answers."

Follow Melissa Klaric on twitter @HeraldKlaric or email her at

Follow Melissa Klaric on twitter @HeraldKlaric or email her at