GREENSBORO — A combination fentanyl and heroin overdose caused the unexpected August death of Guilford County’s chief District Court judge, the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner said in an autopsy released Thursday.
Judge Tom Jarrell, 56, was found unresponsive Aug. 4 on his bedroom floor during a welfare check at his High Point house, the report shows.
He had a medical history that was significant for atrial fibrillation, or irregular heartbeat, and police found a plastic bag with a powdered substance in his pocket, according to the report.
In his bathroom, police found a pocketknife and a piece of paper containing a powdered substance, according to the report.
The autopsy found that there was a possible needle puncture in his right arm with dried blood.
He also had high blood pressure medicine, caffeine and 40 milligrams of alcohol in his system, the toxicology report showed.
Jarrell’s wife, Cindy, said in a statement Thursday the family is still reeling from his sudden death.
“It has left a huge void in all our lives and in the community he loved,” she said. “We have not had an opportunity to review the autopsy, but nothing it can tell us will bring him back or alter our deep love and affection for him.”
N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley said in a statement the judicial community is “shocked and saddened” by Jarrell’s autopsy results.
“But we all know that his many gifts to our state and to our profession will stand the test of time,” she said. “We all need to support his wife, Cindy, and their sons at this time and carry on with the important work that he left unfinished.”
Jarrell graduated from Campbell University School of Law in 1991 and practiced law in High Point before being hired in 1992 as an assistant district attorney.
In 1999, Gov. Jim Hunt appointed him as a District Court judge and in 2016 he was appointed as chief District Court judge.
He remained in that position until his death.
Jarrell served as president of the North Carolina Association of District Court Judges and on a variety of boards, including the N.C. Governors Crime Commission.
He also helped create Street Safe, a program that allows young people to learn proper driving techniques from law enforcement.
Jarrell also started North Carolina’s first DWI Traffic Court to decrease the backlog of pending DWI cases in Guilford County.
Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Joe Craig, who worked closely with Jarrell and was a neighbor and friend, said Thursday everyone is “terribly shocked and saddened,” after hearing the autopsy results.
“It goes to show the opioid crisis doesn’t know any boundaries and can touch any family,” he said.
Wake Forest Law professor Abby Perdue said courts at every level are prepared to handle the cases pending before a judge who has died. However, she said how they do that can vary from the federal to local level and whether the case is civil or criminal.
“In the sad and unfortunate circumstance of a judge passing way during the pendency of a case, other judges on the court will typically absorb the deceased judge’s caseload, familiarize themselves with the record, and proceed in a manner that will avoid unnecessary delay or expense for the parties or prejudice them in any way,” Perdue said.
Perdue said the federal courts have specific rules about what to do if a judge dies during a pending case but on the local level it can vary by courthouse.
A week after Jarrell’s death, Beasley appointed District Court Judge Teresa Vincent to replace Jarrell as chief judge. Vincent was a close friend of Jarrell’s who spoke at his funeral in front of thousands.
Next week, the Guilford County bars plan to nominate an attorney to take the open seat on the bench left after Jarrell’s death and Vincent’s elevation to chief judge.
That nomination will go to Gov. Roy Cooper, who will make the appointment.