A key witness in the case of Tyrone West — whose death in police custody has sparked a citywide debate — told investigators that West fought with officers, but that they continued to hit him after he gave up, according to documents released this week.
"He was saying, 'You got me, you got me, stop hitting me,'" Corinthea Servance told detectives. "Natural instinct, you're going to ward them off. … I was screaming at him, just lay down. Whatever they're telling you to do, take the pain. Just lay down."
The police officers involved in the July 18 incident also told prosecutors that West gave up at one point — but resumed a violent struggle as they tried to take him into custody, requiring other officers to jump into the fray. One officer remarked to a colleague that it was the "fight of my life."
The interviews provide more clarity about a controversial case that has been marked by divergent accounts from police, witnesses and West's family. Accounts from Servance, 44 — the only nonpolice witness to see the entire incident — and police officers were part of an investigative file released this week under a Public Information Act request.
The medical examiner's office ruled that West, 44, died because of a heart condition exacerbated by the struggle with police and the summer heat. But his relatives remain convinced that the officers caused his death, and the case has prompted regular protests and allegations that police are abusive.
In December, the Baltimore state's attorney's office decided that the officers' response to the "chaotic" situation followed their training and they would not face criminal charges. Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts has pledged to convene an outside panel of law enforcement experts to review the case.
The dispute started with a traffic stop in the 1300 block of Kitmore Road. In her interview with homicide detectives that night, Servance said she was in the car with West, whom she knew as "James." She said he was an unlicensed cab driver who often gave her rides. She had called him to get a ride from her mother's house.
As they drove away, she asked him to double back. They were riding in his sister's 1999 Mercedes-Benz.
"Just back up a little and go down the street," the woman said she told West.
The officers initially drove past him, then did a three-point turn and turned on the emergency lights on their unmarked car.
Documents from the investigative file show that plainclothes officers Jorge Bernardez-Ruiz and Nicholas Chapman, who work in the Northeastern District's operations unit, pulled him over because he had reversed his vehicle in an intersection and because they had observed "lots of furtive movements" inside.
Servance, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, told detectives that night that Chapman asked her if she had ever been arrested and repeatedly asked her, "When's the last time you got high?" She said Bernardez-Ruiz then asked her to sit on the curb, which made her feel like a "criminal." West was already out of the car and sitting on the curb with his feet crossed, she said.
She said Chapman went through her pocketbook, taking out "everything — my keys, my lotion, my umbrella, my ID, my money pouch" and questioning whether a folded receipt had drugs inside.
Police found no drugs on her or in the car. But as they did a pat down of West, who they said had been cooperative to that point, they saw a bulge in his sock, later determined to be a small amount of cocaine.
West pushed the officer, the woman and police both say. West had prior drug charges and was out on parole, with a violation potentially sending him back to prison until 2020, records show.
The ensuing fight seemed to go on for 10 minutes, Servance said.
"They were fighting, and they got on the police car. They fell on the ground, and they were fighting," she said, describing the situation as surreal. "All I was doing was going to my mother's house."
David Gray, a criminal law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and an expert on the Fourth Amendment, said a traffic violation is justification to pull over the car and ask the occupants to step out and be searched.
If the occupants give their consent to a search, "basically the Fourth Amendment disappears."
But he said the case raises broader issues related to how such enforcement is applied.
"If we want to avoid perpetuating an antagonistic relationship between police and citizens, it's not enough to ask whether they toed the Fourth Amendment line," Gray said. "There are bigger questions about how officers are incentivized, how they're trained and who they choose to target or not target."
Robert F. Cherry, president of the city police union, said police have a mandate to get guns off the street, and must do so within the boundaries of the Constitution.
"The guns aren't going to miraculously appear," said Cherry, referring to police work generally. "The only way you do that is to be aggressively seeking those guns, from vehicle stops to stop-and-frisks, particularly in places where gun violence is high."
West's family, who had not yet reviewed the files Wednesday, maintains that the incident never should have happened. Their attorney, A. Dwight Pettit, said there was "no necessity" to remove him from the vehicle and "no call for him to be assaulted and beaten."
According to the officers, West was determined to get away. Bernardez-Ruiz said he jumped on West after West swung at him. He put West into a bear hug from behind in an attempt to gain control, and pushed West against the police car, hitting him a "couple of times."
Bernardez-Ruiz told prosecutors that West went limp and said, "OK, you got me," and Bernardez-Ruiz attempted to handcuff him. He said West then "exploded off of the car," and said he believed West was going for his gun. West put his hands up, and the officers took him to the ground. He said West "exploded" again as he tried to handcuff him.
Chapman tried to use pepper spray on West, but the officers took the brunt of it and had a hard time seeing. Bernardez-Ruiz struck West with a baton in the lower body and legs, but said it had no effect.
West broke away and ran across a yard, and the woman and the officers both say West yelled, "Trayvon Martin" and "Help" as the officers continued trying to take him down. At some point, Chapman kicked West in the head, he said.
Servance said she saw the cocaine from his sock on the ground and heard West say, "It's only a measly four bags," she told police.
All of the residents who saw the struggle and were interviewed by police said officers used excessive force. James Price, a nearby resident, told detectives that "the young man was putting up a fight," but said the situation got out of hand once the other officers arrived.
"That's when all of them piled in, beating him and kicking him, beating him and kicking him, until the guy went out," Price said. "They could've put handcuffs on him without doing all that."
Ayesha Rucker, who had been driving through the neighborhood, told police that West appeared to be in fear and was yelling for help. She and others were yelling for the police to stop.
Servance said both sides appeared to be acting out of fear. "It's a lot of adrenaline pumping. They're scared, and he's scared," she said. "But he was laying on the ground. He had his hands up, and the guy kept hitting him. His natural response was to put his hands [back] up."
Sgt. Corey Jennings arrived on the scene afterward and said West was lifeless, his face "gray." He yelled for the officers to remove the handcuffs, and performed chest compressions and CPR until medics arrived.
The medical examiner found that West suffered nearly two dozen abrasions and bruises consistent with a struggle, but no "significant injury to vital structures or vital areas of the body," according to the autopsy report.
All of the officers spoke to prosecutors after signing forms that stated the information would not be used against them in internal disciplinary proceedings. Records show one of the officers, Danielle Lewis, refused to testify and prosecutors sought to compel her testimony in front of a special grand jury before striking an agreement.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun