PHOENIX, Arizona – An independent autopsy conducted on the body of a transgender woman who died in ICE custody in May in New Mexico concluded that she likely died as the result of severe dehydration complicated by HIV infection but also found evidence she had been beaten.
The body of 33-year-old Roxsana Hernandez Rodriguez, who was HIV positive when taken into ICE custody, showed deep bruising on the left and right sides of her chest that was not evident externally, according to the independent autopsy conducted on behalf of her family.
The autopsy also found deep contusions on the left and right sides of her upper back.
The "blunt force trauma of lateral thoracic walls and posterior thorax (are) indicative of blows, and/or kicks, and possible strikes with blunt object," according to the autopsy report.
The independent autopsy also found "extensive deep hemorrhages" on the right and left wrists and hands "typical of handcuff injuries."
The independent autopsy was conducted on behalf of members of Hernandez's family. It was released this week as part of a wrongful death notice claim filed Monday with the New Mexico Attorney General's Office by the Transgender Law Center and Andrew Free, a civil rights attorney in Nashville who is representing Hernandez's family.
Free, the attorney representing Hernandez's family, told The Arizona Republic he believes the injuries found on Hernandez's body by the independent autopsy happened while Hernandez was in ICE custody because the injuries were relatively recent.
Hernandez presented herself to U.S. border officers at the San Ysidro port of entry near San Diego on May 9 and died on May 25, Free said.
What's more, while traveling with the migrant caravan, Hernandez was surrounded by other migrants, many of whom were interviewed as part of a wrongful death claim investigation.
"None of those people reported any physical abuse that would have been indicated by the pathology having occurred in Mexico or prior to crossing," Free said.
He said there are no allegations of physical abuse while Hernandez was hospitalized. In addition, the autopsy also found no signs of "defensive" wounds or bruises typically caused by "putting your hands up" indicating Hernandez was beaten while handcuffed, he said.
"Piecing together the timeline and dating the injuries based on the pathology, it seems that the injuries (happened) when she was handcuffed and in custody," Free said, though he acknowledged "there is not 100 percent certainty."
ICE spokeswoman Leticia Zamarripa said in a written statement any allegations that Hernandez was abused while in ICE custody are false.
Hernandez was part of the caravan of migrants from Honduras and Central America that arrived in Tijuana in April after leaving Tapachula in southern Mexico in March. That caravan preceded the much larger migrant caravan that has arrived in Tijuana over the last two weeks.
The independent autopsy was conducted after an official autopsy conducted as part of a death investigation by the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator.
The death investigation has not yet been completed and the autopsy results have not yet been released, said Alex Sanchez, a spokeswoman for the University of New Mexico Health Science Center, which oversees the medical investigator's office.
The independent autopsy was conducted on June 8 by Dr. Kris Sperry, an independent pathologist in Peachtree City, Georgia.
Sperry was Georgia's chief medical examiner from 1997 until he abruptly retired in 2015 after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published an investigation. The investigation reported Sperry moonlighted as a paid forensic expert in over 500 cases while employed as the state's chief medical examiner.
Sperry did not respond to an email request for comment.
Hernandez entered ICE custody on May 13 and was transferred to the Cibola County Correctional Center, ICE officials said.
She was admitted on May 17 to the Cibola General Hospital with symptoms of pneumonia, dehydration and complications associated with untreated HIV. Later in the day, she was transferred via air ambulance to Lovelace Medical Center, where she remained in the intensive care unit until she died, ICE officials said. Staff at Lovelace Medical Center identified the preliminary cause of death as cardiac arrest, ICE officials said.
"A review of Hernandez's death conducted by ICE Health Service Corps medical professionals confirmed that she suffered from a history of untreated HIV," Zamarripa said. "At no time did the medical personnel treating Ms. Hernandez at Cibola General Hospital or Lovelace Medical Center raise any issues of suspected physical abuse."