FBI plans probe of teen's death

The Baltimore Sun

On the same day the state medical examiner ruled that the death of a student at the Bowling Brook Preparatory School was a homicide, the FBI said it is conducting an independent investigation into the incident.

At a joint news conference in Westminster, federal officials said their investigation into the death of 17-year-old Isaiah Simmons was ordered last week by the Justice Department. Local officials said they would present evidence already gathered by the Carroll County sheriff to a grand jury to determine whether criminal charges should be brought in Maryland.

Simmons died Jan. 23 after being physically restrained for three hours by counselors at Bowling Brook, a privately run residential program for juvenile offenders.

Officials stressed that the medical examiner's ruling of a homicide - meaning the death was the result of actions by another person or people - does not necessarily mean a crime was committed. That will be decided by the grand jury next month, said David P. Daggett, Carroll County deputy state's attorney.

"I have no doubt in my mind that nobody intended to kill this young man," Daggett said. But he said the medical examiner had made clear that Simmons did not die of a pre-existing medical condition. "They are ruling out any health issues [as causing] the death," he said. "They did say there were certain health issues, but that they were not the cause of death."

The examiner used broad language in describing the cause of Simmons' death as "sudden death during restraint." Medical examiners sometimes use the term when they suspect more than one factor might have contributed to death, such as asphyxia and heart failure.

Simmons' mother, Felicia Wilson, and four other family members sat in the front row of the county government meeting room where the news conference was held.

Faced with a phalanx of television cameras and microphones, Wilson briefly lost her composure and dissolved into tears. She said she was relieved, however, to hear of the homicide ruling.

"I'm just happy to hear of the news that they found out what really happened to my son," she said.

Simmons' sister, Danielle Carter, said she was glad to learn of the FBI's separate investigation.

"The family feels that it's always good to have several sets of eyes on an investigation, to make sure everything is done in compliance," she said. "We feel confident that the FBI and all other parties will get to the bottom of this and that justice will be served."

Witnesses have told The Sun that Bowling Brook workers sat on a struggling Simmons until he passed out and died.

Under pressure from state officials, Bowling Brook announced last week that it will close Friday after five decades in operation. Simmons was placed there by the state Department of Juvenile Services after being found responsible in juvenile court for the robbery of another youth at the Inner Harbor.

The Carroll County Sheriff's Office has been investigating the death. Daggett said the grand jury will be asked to determine whether evidence supports any criminal indictments.

The state medical examiner's office has not released a report about Simmons' death but briefed county investigators. Daggett said he decided to present the case to a grand jury to get the benefit of the collective wisdom of a panel of citizens who will review the evidence and determine whether indictments are warranted.

He said a key question in such cases is whether the death was due to "gross negligence" or simple negligence. A finding of "gross negligence" could lead to criminal sanctions.

As an example, Daggett said, a motorist could be prosecuted for manslaughter if he were drunk or drove in an especially reckless way, but might not be prosecuted if he were simply negligent - such as losing control while changing a radio dial.

Queen Anne's County State's Attorney Frank Kratovil Jr., who heads the Maryland Association of State's Attorneys, said cases like Simmons' death can pose a difficult challenge for prosecutors.

"Not every tragic event is a criminal matter," Kratovil said. "The question is going to be: 'Was this a grossly negligent act that is the functional equivalent of an intentional act?' "

He said it is common for prosecutors to take such cases before a grand jury. Some Maryland counties bring all felony cases before a grand jury, he said.

"As a prosecutor, it gives you some feedback on what the issues are in the event you decide to indict," he said. "When you have a case where there are real questions about either the facts or the law, then a grand jury is a very valuable tool."

In announcing the findings of the medical examiner, the sheriff's office said it had collected more than 100 pieces of evidence and had interviewed dozens of staff members and students. Some student witnesses have told The Sun that they were interviewed only while held at Bowling Brook, not outside and away from the school's staff where they could speak more freely.

Kevin R. Lewis, the assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Baltimore office, said at the press conference that federal authorities began monitoring the Simmons' case several weeks ago at the request of the sheriff's office.

"You've got a young person's loss of life at an institution, and that gets our attention," he said.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice asked the FBI to formally launch a separate investigation to determine whether federal civil rights laws were violated, Lewis said.

The investigation will "be starting right away," he said, and the results will be reported to the Justice Department.

An FBI spokeswoman, Michelle Crnkovich, stressed that the investigation is not an indication that the federal government lacks confidence in Carroll County's probe.

"Absolutely not, We have every confidence in them," she said.

The death at Bowling Brook marks the third time in the past four years that federal authorities have investigated Maryland's troubled system for dealing with juvenile offenders.

A federal investigation of the state-run Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County chronicled deplorable conditions. The state addressed the issue by shutting down most of the school in 2005.

Federal officials also have investigated dangerous conditions at another program run the state, the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, which often has been crowded and understaffed.

Maryland's newly appointed Juvenile Services secretary, Donald W. DeVore, said yesterday there is no question Maryland's system is badly in need of reform.

"Today's ruling by the state medical examiner highlights the critical need to reform our Department of Juvenile Services so that all children in state custody are safe," DeVore said. "That is our mission, and failure is not an option."

greg.garland@baltsun.com gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

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