Patrick Howley's family has more questions than answers nearly six months after he was found dead in his cell at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution.

"I haven't heard a word. Unbelievable," his dad, Peter Howley, said by phone this week.

"I don't think it's right."

The Fremont man said he got a call July 27 from a woman at the prison who said his son had been found dead that morning with a plastic bag over his head.

Peter Howley said she told him Patrick killed himself and that there would be an autopsy and an investigation. Someone would call him back with more information.

That never happened, he said.

"I just feel like they left me hanging," Peter Howley said.

Patrick Howley's death, like all in-custody deaths in Nebraska, automatically prompted a grand jury investigation.

The secrecy that surrounds the grand jury process makes it difficult for anyone, including family, to find out what happened -- even though the death occurred in a public facility.

"They should have a right to know," Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers said Tuesday. "It's cruel to withhold that information to a family."

Chambers was behind the passage of laws requiring grand jury investigations of all in-custody deaths in Nebraska in response to fatal shootings by police in Omaha in the late 1970s. Before that, he said, prisons, jails and law enforcement agencies didn't give any information about in-custody deaths -- and they didn't have to.

Now, a grand jury of 15 people is called to hear evidence presented by county attorneys or special prosecutors and to determine if any criminal wrongdoing took place.

"At the time, something was better than nothing," Chambers said. "But it turns out to be not that much better."

Grand juries tend to do whatever prosecutors want, he said.

Deputy Johnson County Attorney Rick Smith said the grand jury found that Patrick Howley killed himself by asphyxiation.

But Smith said he couldn't say if Howley had put a plastic bag over his head or address how he got his hands on one. Howley was alone in a single cell in an intensive management unit, a form of solitary confinement.

By law, the information that went before the grand jury remains a secret -- even after it's done.

"It's statutory," Smith said. "It's the law; we have to follow it."

Prosecutors, jurors and witnesses cannot disclose evidence that comes out during grand jury proceedings.

That makes getting information about how a man died in a locked prison cell more difficult than one might expect.

The Nebraska State Patrol investigated Howley's death, but spokeswoman Deb Collins said the only thing she can say about his death is that the grand jury found "no true bill." That means it found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

In an email last week, Collins said she couldn't give a synopsis of how Howley died.

James Foster, a spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, also cited the grand jury process.

"How it went with Mr. Howley I can't really say because it was investigated and ... they couldn't find any wrongdoing," he said.

But Chambers said the grand jury law isn't meant to cloak the details of in-custody deaths in secrecy and that officials can talk about the general details of an inmate's death.

Asked if it would have been a violation for Howley to have a plastic bag in his cell, Foster said all he knew was that he died of asphyxiation.

He said he can understand that Howley's family is frustrated, but the prison staff had to let the investigation play out.

"There's things I can and can't say because there are investigations going on," he said. "I don't want to say anything that was covered by the grand jury."

Foster said someone should have called Howley's family after the grand jury concluded early in December and that he'll see that it gets done.

Law enforcement agencies talk about being on the side of victims, Chambers said, yet they're withholding information from the public. It shouldn't take legislation to make them change their ways, he said, but maybe it will.

Last month, he said, he got a letter from Patrick Howley's sister, Bridget Howley-Leinen, saying she was frustrated and confused and that her family had been told three stories about how he died.

One person said he hanged himself, she said. One said he was in the infirmary with a plastic bag over his head and another said he was found dead in his cell.

"We don't really know what happened. They haven't given us a straight answer," Howley-Leinen said Tuesday by phone from Woodbine, Iowa. "We just want to know what happened."

She said being able to see police reports and knowing exactly what happened would put her mind at ease.

The family is still waiting to get her brother's property back, including a TV, photos and personal papers. She said a couple of months ago she was told she could get it "after winter."

Foster thinks someone at the prison was trying to guess when the grand jury might be done. The family should be able to get Patrick Howley's things now if the patrol says they're no longer needed, he said.

Howley's father said he knew his son had his problems. He got mixed up with drugs and alcohol and had gone to prison six times, starting with a robbery conviction when he was 14 or 15.

By 2011, he was in prison again for robbery when he attacked a caseworker at the Lincoln Correctional Center with a shiv made out of a grate from an air vent to teach him a lesson for waking him up from naps.

Prosecutors called it attempted murder and assault, and Howley was sentenced to 116 to 162 years.

"He just seemed to like living the hard way," Peter Howley said.

He wonders if his son might have left a suicide note in his room. And he wonders about the plastic bag.

Scott McNeill, a fellow inmate doing time for murder, said in a letter to the Journal Star that Patrick Howley had said he was thinking of hurting himself and tried to talk to mental health workers, but no one went to see him.  

Foster said he couldn't confirm that.

McNeill said a prison worker gave Howley a biohazard bag for his laundry, and Peter Howley confirmed that his son had a staph infection.

He said the woman on the phone told him his son was left alone and found dead 15 minutes later.

"Boy that was a bad mistake, but it was a mistake," he said. "They didn't know what he was gonna do."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7237 or lpilger@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSpilger.

Reporter

Lori Pilger is a public safety reporter.

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