An off-duty Baltimore County police officer killed 17-year-old Christopher Brown by putting pressure on his neck, an assistant medical examiner said Wednesday as the state wrapped up its manslaughter case against James D. Laboard.
Testimony on the third day of Laboard's trial largely focused on how Brown died last June in an altercation with the officer in Randallstown. An instructor at the Baltimore County Police Department said the agency considers neck holds too dangerous for officers to use, because they can cut off the flow of blood and oxygen.
But a witness called later by Laboard's defense said the officer appropriately used a safer technique, called a "carotid hold," to restrain Brown. Other agencies, including the FBI, use such a hold, said Emanuel Kapelsohn, an expert in police use of force. Another defense witness said Brown could have been killed by chest compressions in attempts to revive him.
Police said Brown had been with a group of teens who threw a rock at Laboard's door. The officer found the teen hiding in nearby bushes before the altercation, during which Laboard's lawyers said Brown threw punches at him. An officer who responded to the scene has testified that Laboard told him that he put Brown in a "choke hold" to restrain him.
Kapelsohn described a "choke hold" as pressure applied to the front of the neck, causing damage to the windpipe and cutting off oxygen. He said a carotid hold involves pressure to the sides of the neck and is safer.
Sgt. Owen Watson, the police academy instructor, testified that a county officer is allowed to exert deadly force only when faced with imminent harm or a life-threatening situation. Such situations are evaluated based on such factors as how many suspects there are, their ages and whether they are armed.
Kapelsohn said Laboard's response would have been elevated because he was unaware of whether there were other suspects or Brown had a hidden weapon. He also said Brown was larger than Laboard.
Brown was 6 feet tall and 207 pounds, while Laboard is 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds, a homicide detective said in court.
Dr. Melissa Brassell, the assistant state medical examiner who performed Brown's autopsy, said Brown had hemorrhaging in his eyes and other areas consistent with a neck restraint, which can cause a person to lose consciousness in as little as 10 seconds.
Brassell also testified that Brown did not have any injuries to his hands, which are commonly found on people involved in fist fights.
She identified the cause of death as asphyxia resulting from pressure applied to his neck.
However, during cross-examination by defense attorney Ezra S. Gollogly, she said it is not possible to determine how long he was held in such a manner or how long he was in that position before his death.
An expert in pathology for the defense, Dr. Jonathan Arden, said he reviewed photos taken during the autopsy and found that the cause of death was asphyxia from chest compressions.