Deadly syndrome cited in Chapman autopsy

August 26, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Tanya Jones contributed to this article.

Jesse Chapman Jr.'s death in police custody was a textbook example of an unnamed but increasingly seen syndrome in which cocaine use plus physical exertion can cause sudden death, the doctor who performed an autopsy on the West Baltimore man's body said yesterday.

Some residents of the Sandtown-Winchester community remain unconvinced, however, and they returned to the streets in protest yesterday -- a day after a city grand jury dismissed allegations that city police officers beat Mr. Chapman to death during an arrest last month on a West Baltimore street.

An autopsy report depicts Mr. Chapman as a muscular and vTC otherwise healthy man whose heart-lung system collapsed under the stress of cocaine use, an asthma attack and a struggle with arresting officers.

"The autopsy did not reveal evidence of repeated blows or other significant injury," the report stated. "Superficial injuries sustained by Mr. Chapman, primarily involving the face, exhibited a pattern typical of skin contact with a hard, rough surface such as the pavement . . . [and] are not considered to have contributed to his death."

Dr. Ann M. Dixon, who ruled that Mr. Chapman died of "cocaine intoxication complicated by asthma," said yesterday that the links between cocaine, physical stress and death have become increasingly apparent to coroners in the past decade.

"It often occurs after the subject quiets down. Once the tremendous physical activity is over then the individual has a sudden cardio-respiratory arrest and then dies," said Dr. Dixon, the deputy chief medical examiner for the state. She said a similar scenario has been observed with alcohol as well as cocaine, and while the exact reason death results is not fully understood, the body's release of adrenalin is believed to be a factor.

Mr. Chapman, 30, died July 2 after he reportedly tried to attack his girlfriend in the Western District police station. He led police on a chase that ended in a brief struggle and his arrest a block away. He was pronounced dead after officers found him unconscious in the back of a police patrol wagon.

Witnesses complained that he had been beaten to death, prompting investigations by the Police Department, city prosecutors and federal authorities. The city grand jury's decision Wednesday ended the case for local prosecutors, but the other investigations remain open.

At his weekly news briefing yesterday, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said the grand jury made the appropriate decision based on the evidence. He said, "It's difficult to explain to people about police confrontations" because often only a portion is witnessed.

At the Western District last night, Jesse Chapman's mother, calling the autopsy results "a joke" and holding a glossy color photograph of her dead son's face that she said showed bruises and a broken nose caused by a beating, joined about 20 marchers protesting the medical examiner's ruling.

"I have the picture here, the evidence is in the grave," Judith

Weston said. She said she plans to have Mr. Chapman's body exhumed for an "independent" autopsy.

During the protest, members of Action Now, a community group, met with Maj. Robert F. Smith, the police district's commander, to discuss their concerns about police brutality.

Police "have this military-type attitude like the citizens are the enemy," said Qwaun Sayyid of Action Now who attended the impromptu two-hour meeting with Major Smith.

"They had their concerns and I tried to address those concerns that they had," Major Smith said. "I agreed to meet with their group" in the future.

The full autopsy report came to light only after the grand jury reached its decision. Baltimore State's Attorney Stuart O. Simms had for weeks refused to make the July 12 autopsy report public, arguing that it was part of the investigation. Previously, police said only that Mr. Chapman did not die from blunt force trauma.

Injuries noted in the autopsy report included a 5-inch-long, narrow band of abrasion across Mr. Chapman's forehead and cuts near the nose, eyebrow and on the lip.

"I did not see any bruises. I did not see any areas of obvious swelling," said Dr. Dixon, a medical examiner in Maryland for nearly two decades. "I'm not suggesting no one struck him. There's no way I can say. What I'm saying is there is no evidence of a beating."

The report notes that Mr. Chapman had needle tracks near his elbows and had cocaine in his blood at a level of 0.10 milligrams per liter -- not a level on the order of an overdose, Dr. Dixon said, but apparently enough to contribute to what was, in effect, a heart attack in a healthy heart.

Also, the lungs were fully inflated in death, which showed the person had suffered an asthma attack, Dr. Dixon said. Her

autopsy report notes that Mr. Chapman was wheezing before and after the arrest -- "a sign of an asthma attack" -- and that he had been hospitalized briefly for an attack the day before he died.

As for the asthma attack, she said, "It's just something else putting a stress on the heart.

The "manner" of death was listed as "undetermined" and is likely to stay that way, said Dr. Dixon, who ruled out homicide, suicide, natural causes and accidental as the manners of death. She said that when cocaine causes a death, it cannot be listed as accidental.

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