Officer testifies in case of man who died in custody

Arundel policeman says he didn't know man had ingested antifreeze

November 02, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

Testifying in his defense before a county police trial board, Officer Charles R. Atwell II said yesterday that he had no indication that a 20-year-old Calvert County man he had arrested on suspicion of drunken driving and put into a Southern District holding cell was ill, not drunk.

Atwell, a 14-year veteran of the force, tried to show that he was not negligent in his handling of Philip A. Montgomery, who died in police custody in December of antifreeze poisoning about six hours after being arrested. The man had a history of mental illness.

An off-duty Washington police officer, Christopher S. Huxoll, who saw Montgomery swerve into a guardrail off Route 4 in Lothian, has said that he told Atwell that the young driver said he had been drinking antifreeze.

Atwell, 55, disagreed, testifying that "Officer Huxoll never told me Mr. Montgomery had ingested antifreeze."

Had he been given any information about Montgomery having drunk antifreeze, Atwell testified, he would have questioned Montgomery about it.

Huxoll, in earlier testimony, said he thought Montgomery was referring to alcohol when mentioning antifreeze, an assumption Atwell said he would not have made.

Atwell is charged with 11 violations of department regulations, including failing to perform his duties because he did not summon an ambulance for Montgomery.

The trial board - a lieutenant, a sergeant and an officer - has scheduled closing arguments for today.

If Atwell is found guilty of any of the charges, the board will recommend punishment. Chief P. Thomas Shanahan has 30 days to confirm or change the board's recommendation, and that decision may be appealed to the Circuit Court.

Questioned by his lawyer, Mark Howes, Atwell said Montgomery's arrest seemed to be a straightforward case of drunken driving, although the man appeared to be more intoxicated than most people arrested on DWI charges.

Atwell said he didn't conduct field sobriety tests or order chemical tests, in part because he thought Montgomery was unable to stand on his own without stumbling or falling. Those tests were not mandatory in Montgomery's arrest, according to testimony by police officers.

On cross-examination by Internal Affairs Sgt. Jeff Collins, acting as prosecutor in the case, Atwell said he did not know for sure that Montgomery, who he said did not smell of alcohol, wasn't showing signs of drug use, over-medication or some other medical problem.

Medical experts and police officers testified that intoxication, antifreeze poisoning, diabetic shock and head trauma share symptoms such as confusion and slurred speech.

Atwell said he never considered Montgomery's medical condition life-threatening. He testified that when he asked a booking officer whether Montgomery was still "comatose," he meant "sleeping."

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