A federal jury last night absolved a former Anne Arundel County police officer of blame in the death of a 20-year-old man who he thought was drunk but who had consumed a fatal amount of antifreeze before his arrest.
Ending a legal battle in Baltimore U.S. District Court, the jury decided after deliberating 3 1/2 hours that former Officer Charles R. Atwell had no way of knowing that Phillip Montgomery, 20, needed emergency medical treatment before he died Dec. 15, 2000, in a holding cell at an Edgewater police station.
The decision was a blow to Montgomery's widow, Minina Craig, who filed the civil suit against the officer and the county, seeking more than $12 million in damages for Montgomery's pain and suffering and for her loss of financial support.
"Obviously, she's disappointed," said Greg Castelli, one of her lawyers. Craig, who had been separated from Montgomery for most of their short marriage, declined to comment.
Castelli said Atwell and other officers falsely testified that Montgomery was heard snoring in the lockup.
"Phillip Montgomery wasn't snoring - he was dying. ... He was gasping for his life is what he was doing," he told jurors.
Castelli reminded the jury that his medical expert testified that Montgomery could have survived if Atwell had called for an ambulance.
Though not criminally charged, Atwell was fired from the police force. Officials there said he violated departmental procedures by not seeking medical care for Montgomery.
Atwell's attorney, Mark Howes, said his client made some mistakes during his dealings with Montgomery, but none severe enough to cause Montgomery's death. "Cops aren't perfect - errors were made," Howes said. "But Atwell acted in good faith using the evidence he had at his disposal at the time."
Howes said Atwell, a 28-year police veteran, will seek reinstatement with the Police Department. A spokesman for the Anne Arundel police declined to discuss the case or Atwell's status.
Howes told the jury that Montgomery's consumption of antifreeze was "a bizarre circumstance," although he said patrol officers routinely deal with drunk drivers. Many of the outward symptoms are the same, experts for the defense testified.
The reason Montgomery drank antifreeze was unknown.
In court this week, police testified that Montgomery crashed his car into a guard rail on Route 4 in Lothian.
Atwell was called to the scene and arrested Montgomery on suspicion of drunken driving. Atwell said he did not try to administer a breath test because Montgomery was combative.
Montgomery, a former Navy linguist, received a less-than-honorable discharge from the Navy shortly before marrying Craig in March 2000. Months later, he left her and moved to his mother's house in Lusby because of deteriorating mental health, Castelli said.
That August, he was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder, marked by delusions and depression. His mother testified in court last week that he had stopped taking his medication a month before he died.
On the morning of the day he died, Castelli said, Montgomery checked into a Prince Frederick hotel. Maids there found three empty beer cans, cups with antifreeze and vomit in a trash can.
During closing arguments, Howes focused on the statements of several county officers, who said they believed Montgomery was intoxicated shortly before his death.
Howes said an off-duty Washington police officer, Christopher S. Huxoll, testified that he saw the accident, stopped to see whether Montgomery needed help and asked if he had been drinking. Montgomery replied that he had consumed antifreeze, Huxoll told the jury.
But during cross-examination, Huxoll said he thought Montgomery was using the word antifreeze as slang for alcohol, Howes said.
"He looked like a drunk who simply need[ed] to sleep it off," said Hamilton Tyler, representing Anne Arundel County.