Controversial prisoner death ruled a suicide

sstanton@sacbee.comJuly 30, 2013 

The death of an inmate last week at California State Prison, Corcoran, has been ruled a suicide, despite claims by inmate advocates that it may have resulted from an ongoing hunger strike.

Kings County Chief Deputy Coroner Tom A. Edmonds said Monday that the inmate, 32-year-old Billy Michael Sell, died from "ligature strangulation."

"It's going to be a suicidal death," Edmonds said.

Sell, who was confined in a single cell in the prison's Secure Housing Unit, was found unresponsive July 22 and pronounced dead at 9:32 p.m.

The Coroner's Office conducted an external autopsy on Wednesday and determined the "cause of death was obvious," Edmonds said.

Inmate advocates had claimed Saturday that Sell was participating in the 3-week-old hunger strike launched to protest conditions in solitary confinement and had been asking for medical attention before he died.

Corrections officials denounced those claims as "irresponsible and inflammatory" and said Sell was not taking part in the hunger strike.

Sell had been serving a double-life sentence out of Solano County for attempted first- degree murder. He also was facing trial in the 2007 slaying of his cellmate at Corcoran.

Initially, thousands of inmates were participating in the hunger strike that was announced earlier this month.

Since then, the number has dwindled dramatically, with corrections officials saying that as of Monday 561 inmates in nine prisons were still refusing meals.

The department considers an inmate to be on a hunger strike after missing nine consecutive meals, and says 385 inmates have been on strike continuously since the protest began July 8.

Call The Bee's Sam Stanton, (916) 321-1091. Follow him on Twitter @stantonsam.

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