The city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner announced on July 30 that Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco, a transgender woman who was found dead at Rikers Island on June 6, died of seizures caused by epilepsy.
The medical examiner described Polanco’s death as ”natural” and a “sudden unexplained death in epilepsy (SUDEP) due to or as a consequence of mutation in CACNA1H gene.” Chief Medical Examiner Barbara Sampson said in a written statement that genetic testing showed a “biological mutation in the CANNA1H gene which is the likely cause of her epilepsy; variants in this gene are associated with seizures.”
Immediately following the announcement of her cause of death, an attorney representing Polanco’s family told Gay City News via phone that the family is still proceeding with previously-announced plans to file a federal civil rights lawsuit in response to her death.
“It’s ready to go,” said attorney David Shanies, who noted that his legal team is merely waiting for a procedural hurdle to be cleared at the Westchester surrogate court.
On the day she died, Department of Correction (DOC) officials found Polanco unconscious at 2:40 p.m. in her “restrictive housing” cell, which is similar to solitary confinement. DOC officials told Gay City News she was in restrictive housing for assaulting another incarcerated individual, but numerous questions have been raised regarding why she would be placed in such housing when she suffered from medical conditions.
Shanies noted in a written statement on July 30 that Polanco’s epilepsy “was well-known to DOC and she suffered multiple seizures on Rikers. On 5/30, a jail doctor approved her placement in punitive segregation, despite her epilepsy. That became her death warrant.”
Polanco’s family, LGBTQ advocates, and others sought answers for weeks and heard very little in response, sparking frustration at a June 26 City Hall rally. Shanies first announced on June 26 that the family was “going to get the answers ourselves” through the aforementioned lawsuit.
In the meantime, the death remains under investigation by the Bronx District Attorney’s office and the Department of Investigation. Peter Thorne, who is the deputy commissioner of public information for the Department of Correction, said the agency is “participating fully” in that probe and that the DOC hopes “that the OCME’s determination helps provide answers that Layleen’s family, friends, and the city deserves.”
Polanco, who arrested for assault and possession of a controlled substance, was unable to afford $500 bail. Her tragic death further highlighted the marginalization of trans women of color at a time when a dozen black trans women have suffered violent deaths in the United States this year alone, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
“As painful as these revelations are, they have fortified the family’s resolve to seek #JusticeForLayleen,” Shanies said in a tweet on July 30.