Memphis family has concerns about man’s death while in custody without a lawyer for two weeks

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A Memphis family is demanding answers after their loved one died in custody at 201 Poplar.

Police booked Richard Willingham at the end of June and he stayed in jail without an attorney for two weeks.

Willingham’s family believes he would be alive today if he had been appointed an attorney much sooner.

Court records show police arrested Willingham for aggravated assault on June 30 and records show he had two video arraignments continued in early July.

Willingham had his first appearance on July 14 and this is when he was appointed counsel for the first time.

The sheriff’s office said Willingham died several hours later after a procedure at Regional One hospital.

“People in this county stay jail for the lengths of time that they do because they don’t have the resources to hire an attorney,” said Brice Timmons who is representing Willingham’s family.

Timmons said waiting two weeks for an attorney is unacceptable.

“There is no reason whatsoever that you cannot video conferencing technology, the same technology that you and I are using right here to conduct this interview, to have a court appearance and appoint someone counsel,” he said.

FOX13 called the judge assigned to the case, Judge William Turner, and asked about the delay.

His office said Willingham was in quarantine for the first two weeks of July so his first in-person arraignment wasn’t until July 14.

The sheriff’s office said the preliminary investigation suggests Willingham died from a pre-existing condition. FOX13 asked the sheriff’s office if they knew Willingham had a pre-existing condition when he was booked on June 30 and why he was in quarantine.

In a statement, a spokesperson said “The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office has an open investigation surrounding the death of detainee Richard Willingham. We are unable to disclose additional details during this ongoing investigation.”

But Timmons said this kind of delay happens way too often in Shelby County.

“All they have to do, even under these quarantine conditions, is to utilize video conferencing software that they already have in the jail, that they already use to make remote appearances from the jail to the courtroom and use that to immediately appoint counsel,” said Timmons. “Frankly they don’t even have to have a court appearance, they should just appoint counsel for everyone who’s incarcerated when they’re booked in the jail. That’s what they do in Nashville and there’s no reason why they can’t in Memphis.”

The Shelby County Public Defender’s office says people have the right to counsel as soon as they’re arrested or formally charged. But generally, they aren’t appointed a lawyer until their arraignment date in court.

The public defender’s office says if that arraignment is delayed, then so is the appointment of counsel.

The medical examiner is still investigating the official cause of death.