Grand jury hears witnesses in youth's death

The Baltimore Sun

A Carroll County grand jury investigating the Jan. 23 death of a youth as he was being restrained at a privately run school for juvenile offenders heard testimony yesterday from a sheriff's detective, an assistant medical examiner and two state juvenile services officials.

Jurors were scheduled to hear further testimony today before deciding whether criminal charges should be brought in connection with the death of Isaiah Simmons, 17, at Bowling Brook Preparatory School, which has since been closed.

Simmons passed out and died during a restraint by Bowling Brook counselors that lasted more than three hours. The state medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, listing the cause as "sudden death by restraint."

Chief Deputy State's Attorney David P. Daggett, who is presenting the case to the grand jury, said yesterday that he wasn't sure whether the jury would be able to finish its work today. Any public announcement of its decision would not come until Monday, at the earliest, he said.

Daggett said he does not plan to call as witnesses either Bowling Brook staff or youths who were held at the school at the time of Simmons' death. He said he is instead relying on the statements they gave to a Carroll County sheriff's detective who led the investigation of the incident.

"Hearsay testimony is admissible" in grand jury proceedings, Daggett said, so the statements of Bowling Brook staff and youths can be presented to jurors through the sheriff's detective.

The witnesses who appeared yesterday before the grand jury, which meets in secret, declined to discuss their testimony with a reporter.

Witnesses included Maryland Assistant Juvenile Services Secretary James Smith, who oversees residential programs, and Vicky Mitchell, a juvenile services administrator.

Assistant Medical Examiner Tasha Zemrus Greenberg, who performed the autopsy on Simmons, and Detective Doug Epperson, lead investigator for the sheriff's office, also testified.

Daggett said Epperson would retake the witness stand today. He said he did not plan to call other witnesses.

Steven H. Heisler, an attorney for Simmons' family voiced surprise when told no staff or youths would be called to testify.

"We would think that the grand jury would want to hear from the individuals who directly witnessed the incident," Heisler said. "However, Mr. Daggett is the state's attorney, and he has expertise in dealing with grand juries. We are going to place our trust in him."

Although the medical examiner ruled Simmons death a homicide, that just means the death was the result of actions by another person or people. It does not necessarily mean a crime was committed.

Daggett has said a key issue for the grand jury to decide is whether the death was due to "gross negligence" or simple negligence. A finding of "gross negligence" could lead to an indictment on criminal charges.

Bowling Brook closed under pressure from the state last month and surrendered its license to operate. However, the school's administrators and supporters say they hope to see it eventually reopen.

Before the incident, the non-profit school had developed a reputation as one of the few successful programs for juvenile offenders in Maryland.

But former staff members and some students say the school changed as it expanded to take in more troubled youths and that the staff increasingly used force.

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