At eleven-thirty on the morning of June 13, 2013, Huntsville, Alabama drug officers in plainclothes ran toward a 17-year-old suspect immediately after he was handed two zip-lock bags of Ecstasy by an 18-year-old police informant. (No doubt the young snitch had been arrested and turned into an informant. Putting young drug arrestees into danger by flipping them into drug snitches is not, in my opinion, good police practice.) The recipient of the Ecstasy, only identified by his last name, Smith, saw the men approaching and walked off in the other direction. (The undercover officers are accused of not identifying themselves prior to Smith's arrest.)
One of the drug officers grabbed the 130 pound, unarmed boy and threw him to the ground. Another officer pepper sprayed Smith in the face, handcuffed him, and kept him pressed to the ground with a knee in his back. With an officer's arm around his neck, the boy began to choke and struggle for air.
When the suspect lost consciousness, one of the arresting officers called for an ambulance. While awaiting for the arrival of the emergency crew, one of the cops, thinking that Smith had swallowed the bags of Ecstasy, inserted an oblong metal tool into his throat to retrieve the evidence. This tactic failed to locate the drugs.
Paramedics arrived at the scene at eleven-forty-five and spent the next twenty-two minutes trying to revive the boy. When they couldn't get Smith to respond, the paramedics rushed him to a nearby emergency room.
At the hospital, doctors found no drug bag blockage in the boy's throat or airway. The teenager did have several broken ribs and contusions on his arms and face. On June 18, 2013, five days after the drug arrest, the Smith boy died.
In the autopsy report, a forensic pathologist with the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, wrote: "Because of the circumstances of this event, it is difficult to discern if the decedent died from a drug overdose or an asphyxia event exacerbated by either occlusion of the airway by the foreign object, or possible vascular occlusion associated with the neck restraint, [This is a bureaucratic, mealy mouthed way of raising the possibility that one of the arresting officers had strangled the boy to death.] or from a combination of all the events that transpired during the arrest." [What a load of crap.]
The Madison County Coroner, based on the autopsy results, ruled the boy's death "undetermined." One of the reasons the coroner could get away with this ridiculous ruling involved the fact that Smith's blood samples had been "discarded" before they could be tested for drugs. The coroner also sealed the autopsy report, a public document, for almost a year, denying the boy's parents key information related to his violent death. [This is a typical tactic in excessive force police cases.]
On March 27, 2014, the dead teenager's mother, Nancy Smith, sued the city of Huntsville, the police department, the chief of police, and four individual police officers. In this civil action, brought in federal court for unspecified damages, the plaintiff accuses these Huntsville officers of causing her son's death through a combination of excessive force and the insertion of the metal object into his throat to retrieve the bags of drugs he had supposedly swallowed. The chief of police stands accused of failing to provide adequate police training in the use of force. The department and the city of Huntsville are being sued for orchestrating a cover-up to protect the officers involved.
In my view, if the defendants in this wrongful death suit are smart, they will settle out of court. A trial might reveal an example of drug enforcement overkill at its worst.
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