On Friday afternoon, outside the Durham County Detention Center, chants of “shut it down” and “no justice, no peace” echoed against the jail’s stark white exterior. Orange blurs pressed against the building’s barred windows and waved. Down below, the family and friends of Uniece Fennell, who just eight days ago was also behind those bars, waved backed.
Fennell, who was seventeen, was found dead at Durham County jail on March 23. The Sheriff’s Office says she committed suicide by hanging herself with a sheet tied to a bar on the window in her cell. Her family, recalling a “goofy,” “full of life” teenager, doesn’t buy it. Instead, they see a cover-up by a facility where Fennell’s death was the latest, not the first.
Courtesy of Fennell's family
Fennell’s death is being investigated by the State Bureau of Investigation, but the family would like to see the inquiry taken beyond the SBI. They’re also asking that the Durham County Sheriff be held accountable for Fennell’s death and for failing to fix what they called “the long-known problem of the risk of the bars in certain cells and all other unsafe conditions.”
About two dozen people gathered Friday morning to make these demands and remember Fennell. They carried signs reading “long live Niecey,” and “rest in peace Niecey,” her smiling face looking back from photos stuck to the poster boards. Some commemorated “the Fennell Twins”; Fennell’s twin brother, Demoraea, was shot and killed in November, while she was in jail.
A group demanding justice for Uniece Fennell, who died at the Durham County jail on March 23, 2017, block a Sheriff's Office van from entering the facility.
According to an inmate death report from the Sheriff’s Office, Fennell was found dead at 2:48 a.m. on March 23, thirty minutes after a jail employee had last checked on her during rounds.
The family is raising money
to transport Fennell’s body to California, where many of her relatives live.
Fennell’s sister, Tarshella Fountain, said their mother had spoken to Fennell the day she died and that she was fine.
“My daughter, Niecey Fennell, was a minor being held in adult facility that could not provide the basic necessities for a minor including safety,” Julia Graves said in a statement released Friday morning
, along with remarks from fifteen other people who knew Fennell. “Niecey will not harm herself due to her religious beliefs. She was a young lady full of life love and despite her current situation optimistic and happy she had plans for her future which included raising her deceased twin brother’s new baby, finishing school, and as usual being a great help to her mother. Unfortunately her time here on this Earth was cut short.”
Friends of Uniece Fennell gather outside of the Durham County Detention Center on Friday to remember the seventeen-year-old.
Fennell was jailed last summer after being charged with the murder of a nineteen-year-old. Her friends and family say she was not a murderer but was threatened and forced to go along on the July 10 drive-by shooting by another person involved who has yet to be apprehended.
Talking on speakerphone, Graves said she is asking for an independent autopsy to be performed on her daughter. “She has what appears to be a broken nose, black eye and bruising everywhere on both sides of her body. Not consistent with the way they said she killed her self,” the fundraising page says. “Our family believes more happened that night and that the sheriff's department is going to try and cover this up.”
Rachelle Shaw said she met Fennell in the detention facility. When Shaw moved into the cell across from hers, Fennell slipped a note under the door introducing herself and asking if she was OK. Shaw’s brother had also been killed, in 2014.
“I know what it’s like to want to commit suicide,” she said into a megaphone, tears streaming down her face. Fennell, she says, showed no signs of being that distraught. Shaw wondered aloud how Fennell, who was just over five feet tall, could have reached the barred window above her bed to hang herself, when she couldn’t at five foot eleven.
Fennell’s mother also finds it strange that her daughter’s death came less than a day after an attorney reported to a jail officer that Fennell had complained of harassment by a detention officer. According to attorney Alex Charns, Fennell said an officer had called her a murderer and “referred to detainees as bitches.”
The Sheriff’s Office says Fennell submitted no formal complaints and that the detention officer in question had resigned two weeks before Charns emailed Major Julian Couch.
“We need to know exactly what happened that night,” Fountain said.