Report: Heart condition didn't cause Tyrone West's death in custody

The Associated Press

A man died after a struggle with Baltimore police officers in 2013 because he couldn't breathe, and not because of a heart condition as the department's independent review board concluded, according to a new forensic review of his autopsy.

The man's family hopes it will prompt the city's top prosecutor to reopen his case.

Tyrone West, 44, died after being arrested during a traffic stop on July 18, 2013. West was pulled over for backing down the street into an intersection, according to the report.

After officers asked West to get out of the car, they noticed a bulge in his sock and suspected drugs. A bag recovered at the scene turned out to contain cocaine. The officers said they chased West, and he was ultimately tackled to the ground. When West died, he was in handcuffs.

An autopsy revealed no serious injuries or signs of asphyxia, and the officers were not charged in West's death. The department's Independent Review Board said in an August 2014 report that West "died of Cardiac Arrhythmia due to Cardiac Conduction System Abnormality complicated by Dehydration during Police Restraint."

According to the medical examiner, another contributing factor may have been "the extreme environmental temperatures."

But the West family, including West's sister, Tawanda Jones, has held weekly demonstrations calling for a renewed investigation into his death. As part of a multimillion-dollar federal lawsuit against officers from the city and Morgan State University, her attorney, Dwight Pettit, hired Dr. William Manion to conduct an independent forensic investigation.

Manion, the chief of pathology at Memorial Hospital of Salem County in New Jersey, is a designated forensic pathologist and medical examiner in that state. His report, submitted to the court in November, concludes that West suffocated, contradicting the assertion that West died of a heart condition.

"I do not believe that the cardiac conduction system abnormality made any significant contribution to Mr. West's death," Manion wrote. "There is no evidence of cardiac disease, fainting or sickness due to any cardiac conduction system abnormality prior to his death."

Manion wrote in a two-page preliminary report that "the main cause of death is the fact that he was restrained in such a way that he was unable to breathe." Manion called it positional asphyxia.

Although the report was filed in November, Jones said she was made aware of it last week, shortly after State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby declined to reopen the case. Mosby said in a written statement that she couldn't reopen the case because "there has been no new evidence or additional information."

But Jones hopes the report will sway the city's top prosecutor to reconsider. She wants Mosby to sign off on a request to exhume West's body and conduct an independent autopsy.

"When I spoke to our state's attorney, she said even though she couldn't do anything now, she said if anything new develops she'll be more than happy to sit down with my family, and that gave me hope," Jones said. "This is definitely new information, and something needs to be done."

Rochelle Ritchie, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney's office, declined to comment.

T.J. Smith, a spokesman for the Police Department, said he could not comment on pending litigation.

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