Citing serious concerns and numerous unanswered questions about the circumstances surrounding Betty Jean Winston’s death while in custody at the Mercer County Jail, Attorney David Betras and members of Ms. Winston’s family today called on Mercer County District Attorney Peter Acker to allow an independent agency to investigate the tragic incident. Ms. Winston, who was 36 years old, was found dead in her cell on Wednesday, July 26 after being maced and tased by a Mercer County deputy.
“The Mercer County Sheriff’s Department should not be conducting the investigation into Ms. Winston’s death because they will in essence be investigating their own potential misconduct,” Atty. Betras said. To avoid any appearance of impropriety or conflict of interest, my clients demand that District Attorney Acker immediately ask the Pennsylvania State Police to assume control of the inquiry. We believe that will ensure that the truth is uncovered and revealed to the family and the public”
Ms. Winston, who has a documented history of mental illness, was taken into custody on July 22, 2023 and charged with third degree misdemeanor Disorderly Conduct-Unreasonable Noise. Her bail was set at $15,000 which is more than seven times the maximum fine allowable for the offense under Pennsylvania law. She was unable to post bail and remained in jail. On July 26, deputies used a taser to subdue Ms. Winston and confined her to a cell and failed to provide her with any medical attention. She was discovered lifeless later that evening in the same location where deputies had left her earlier.
“We are disturbed by the fact that this African American woman died in and was spirited out of the Mercer County Jail in a manner that appears to have been designed to avoid media and public scrutiny,” Atty. Betras said. “This family and this community need and deserve answers from all involved and we will do whatever is necessary to obtain them.”
Text of the letter sent to Mercer County District Attorney Peter Acker:
RE: The Estate of Betty Jean Winston, Deceased
Date of Death: July 26, 2023
Dear Attorney Acker:
As you know, I represent the family members of Betty Jean Winston who tragically died while being held as a prisoner at the Mercer County Jail on the above date. Ms. Winston, a 36-year-old African American woman with documented history of mental illness, was taken into custody on July 22, 2023 on charges of third degree misdemeanor Disorderly Conduct-Unreasonable Noise, 18 Pa. C.S. § 5503(a)(2). Ms. Winston’s bond was set at $15,000 which is more than seven times the maximum fine allowable for the offense by Pennsylvania law.
While the facts have been limited, it has come to my attention that Ms. Winston was suffering from a schizophrenic episode throughout the time she was an inmate at the County Jail. On July 26, 2023, deputies used a taser to subdue Ms. Winston and confined her to a cell without any medical attention. Ms. Winston was discovered lifeless later that evening in the same locations where deputies left her.
It is my understanding that the Mercer County Sherriff’s Department is currently investigating the circumstances surrounding Ms. Winston’s death. This includes an inquiry into the Department’s own potential misconduct. To avoid any impropriety, my clients are demanding that the investigation be conducted by an independent agency such as the State Police. This act of transparency will allow Ms. Winston’s family to uncover the truth and ensure the public that the Mental Health Procedures Act of 1976 is being properly implemented at the Mercer County Jail.
I appreciate your prompt attention towards addressing my clients’ concerns.
David. J. Betras, Esquire