After 90 days, few details on death of man in police custody

In the 90 days since Tyrone West died during an altercation with police in Northeast Baltimore, his relatives have flooded radio talk-show lines, protested outside City Hall and the state's attorney's office, and crowded community forums to confront police officials.

West's family and their supporters are demanding that officers involved in the incident be investigated in connection with his death, citing witness claims that as many as 10 officers assaulted him.

Police have said West, 44, suffered "medical distress" after fighting with officers, who stopped him for a traffic violation and suspected there were drugs in the car. Eight city officers have been suspended pending the review, as is customary in such cases. But officials say the investigation is in limbo until a cause of death is determined.

Demonstrators gathered Wednesday outside of the state medical examiner office, accusing officials of dragging their feet. They wore T-shirts that bore West's name on the front, and "One Man" on the back, which they say is short for "Ten officers versus one man."

"We feel like it's a coverup, and we're going to keep fighting until we get some answers," said Tawanda Jones, West's sister.

Bruce Goldfarb, a spokesman for the medical examiner's office, said officials can't discuss pending cases under investigation. But he acknowledged the amount of time the case is taking is unusual.

"According to standards of the National Association of Medical Examiners, 90 percent of cases should be completed within 90 days. A small number of cases take longer," Goldfarb said. "This is one of those cases."

Experts on autopsies say there are good reasons for a determination to take so long, though they said officials could head off some concerns by sharing more information with the family and public.

"The two cardinal sins medical examiners and police agencies make is talking too much or talking too little. It sounds like the latter in this case," said Gregory J. Davis, a professor of pathology at the University of Kentucky and an assistant state medical examiner.

Maryland's office has 15 forensic pathologists and conducts thousands of autopsies a year, which often form the basis for or buttress police investigations. Autopsies can be completed in a day in cases of a clear-cut shooting or stabbing, but they also can take months depending on the complexity of the case.

Vincent DiMaio, a national expert who has spent 40 years as a forensic pathologist and testified in several high-profile trials, said cases in which the injuries are less obvious take time.

"If there are no fatal injuries to the person after an altercation with the police, then you're in a quandary," DiMaio said. He said doctors must repeat the toxicology examination, order special tests and scrutinize witness accounts.

In late August, Goldfarb said the Maryland medical examiner's office brought in an outside cardiac pathologist, but it has declined to give updates since then.

West, who was on parole for drug and assault convictions, was pulled over in the 1300 block of Kitmore Road on July 18. Several people have come forward saying they saw the incident and that West was beaten by officers.

City Councilman Bill Henry, who represents the area, said he was told by police that West punched an officer, tried to flee, and fought with officers before collapsing.

In addition to the eight Baltimore police officers, a Morgan State University officer was identified as being involved in the altercation.

Police have repeatedly pledged to handle the investigation in a transparent way, but say they can't comment until the case is completed.

At a recent public crime forum at Morgan State University, supporters stepped to the microphone to denounce police and what they say is a lack of communication.

"You say you're going to be transparent, but how can it be transparent when the family is not included in that process?" one relative asked Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts, as people in the audience applauded. "You give us the wink and the gun, smiling, but there's no answers."

West's relatives have gathered every Wednesday at different locations to bring attention to the case. And when Batts recently made a round of appearances on radio talk shows, West's relatives clogged phone lines.

Batts, responding to West's sister after she called into Marc Steiner's show on WEAA 88.9 FM, acknowledged skepticism of the police investigation but asked for patience.

"Part of the concern is, are we going to circle the wagons and not tell the truth?" Batts said. "I think it behooves not only the police officers that were a part of that incident, who have a cloud over their head, as well as the witnesses, to bring all of that out and make sure we truly know what happened out there."

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