Condition of man who died in jail debated

Officer is charged with failing to seek medical assistance

November 01, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County police internal affairs officers presented testimony yesterday designed to show that Officer Charles R. Atwell II violated department regulations by failing to call an ambulance despite signs that a suspect in his custody was in danger of dying.

In the second day of Atwell's hearing before a county police trial board, officers testified that he failed to summon medical help even though Philip A. Montgomery had driven his car into a guardrail, couldn't walk without help from two officers and was unresponsive when questioned.

The three-officer trial board was also told that Atwell didn't call for an ambulance when Montgomery, suspected of being drunk, couldn't be awakened in a holding cell at the Southern District, where he later died of antifreeze poisoning.

"In Officer Atwell's own words, Montgomery was `incoherent' and `comatose,'" said Internal Affairs Sgt. Jeff Collins, who is acting as lead prosecutor in the case. "He couldn't get into the patrol car or into the station on his own."

Atwell's lawyer, Mark Howes, said the 14-year officer had no reason to suspect that Montgomery was in need of medical attention because Montgomery appeared to be drunk and "sleeping it off."

Atwell is charged with 11 violations of department regulations, including failing to perform his duties and conduct unbecoming an officer, in the death Dec. 15 of Montgomery, a Calvert County electrician's apprentice who was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving on Route 4 in Lothian.

Internal affairs officers wrapped up their case yesterday. Atwell's lawyers are expected to begin calling witnesses in his defense today.

Witnesses at the eight-hour hearing included a half-dozen doctors and medical experts who testified that a person who is drunk and one who has ingested antifreeze exhibit similar symptoms - problems with concentration, coordination, speaking and walking.

Collins argued that it didn't matter whether Atwell suspected that Montgomery, 20, had drunk vodka or antifreeze. He should have called for medical attention because either condition could be life-threatening, Collins said.

Collins also argued that Atwell should have taken action upon seeing Montgomery's condition because he had no evidence that Montgomery was only drunk. Witnesses said Atwell did not administer a Breathalyzer test or order a blood-alcohol test, and no evidence has been presented that he smelled alcohol on Montgomery.

Departmental rules direct officers to send to the hospital a person who is injured, ill or unconscious. The defense has pointed out that regulations don't specify what constitutes being injured, ill or unconscious.

Montgomery's mother, Betty Montgomery, testified yesterday that she told Atwell her son had a history of mental illness and had stopped taking his medication. Atwell "just insisted" that her son was "very drunk," she said.

Six hours later, when officers arrived at her door in Calvert County, she said, they notified her that her son was dead.

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