A 35-year-old man who died in a Durham County jail cell last year died from accidental fentanyl poisoning, a newly released autopsy shows.
Joseph Bernard Hunter of Washington, N.C., died of fentanyl toxicity with alcohol as a contributing factor, according to the autopsy released Friday by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
Hunter was arrested and charged with driving while impaired by the N.C. State Highway Patrol on April 15, 2021. A breathalyzer test found he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.24, or three times the legal limit for driving.
A post-death toxicology report also determined Hunter had 15 ng/mL of fentanyl and 180 mg/dL of ethanol in his bloodstream, which is equivalent to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.18%, according to the autopsy.
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid originally developed to manage pain, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
At blood-alcohol levels between 0.20 and 0.24, many people can’t stand and experience disorientation, nausea, confusion and possible blackout.
Slumped over steering wheel
On April 15, 2021, Hunter was found slumped over the steering wheel of his car by State Highway Patrol officers after an unknown caller reported seeing a car on the side of the road in Durham County.
Hunter was arrested on a charge of driving while impaired and taken to the Durham County jail where he was given a breathalyzer exam, according to the medical examiner’s report.
Two children, who were not identified, were in the backseat of the car during Hunter’s arrest. They were determined to be his girlfriend’s children, the report said.
Around 9:55 p.m., Hunter was taken to a magistrate who set his bail and he was placed in a holding cell for 20 minutes, according to the report.
He was not observed while in the holding cell and was later found lying on his side in respiratory distress.
The report says the jail’s medical staff did a sternal rub, which is done to determine a response to pain, and performed CPR on Hunter.
Shortly after, Hunter was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 11:57 p.m.
The News & Observer previously reported that Hunter’s death was being investigated by the State Bureau of Investigation which is a standard procedure when a detainee dies in jail.
2021 deaths in state jails
Hunter was the second person to die in a Durham County jail last year.
His death came four months after 34-year-old Brittany Kittrell died that January, four days after she was arrested.
Hunter and Kittrell were also among the 67 people who died in a North Carolina jail in 2021, The N&O previously reported.
The number was 40% higher than 2020 when 48 detainees died.
Hunter was buried in Durham on April 21, 2021, according to an online obituary.
This story was originally published August 29, 2022 5:04 PM.
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