Prosecutors cite heart issue in Tyrone West's cause of death

  • Tawanda Jones, sister of the late Tyrone West, is joined by family as she talks to reporters in Northwest Baltimore in July.
Tawanda Jones, sister of the late Tyrone West, is joined by family… (Justin Fenton/Baltimore…)
December 11, 2013|By Justin Fenton and Ian Duncan, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore prosecutors on Tuesday said a heart condition and dehydration were factors in the death of a man being restrained by police during a July traffic stop.

But the state medical examiner could not determine the degree to which the officers’ actions — or Tyrone West’s ailments — contributed to his death. The examiner couldn’t conclude whether the death resulted from a homicide, accident or other means.

The release of the findings came a day before a City Council hearing called to probe delays in the case. West’s family members have been calling for months for the autopsy’s findings to be released.

An attorney for the officers involved said the disclosure shows that they did not cause his death. Witnesses have claimed that West was beaten, but prosecutors did not reference such trauma in their statement. The Baltimore state’s attorney’s office said the investigation was continuing.

Baltimore police late Tuesday also released the findings of a special commission appointed to review the death of Anthony Anderson, whose spleen ruptured as officers took him to the ground during a September 2012 drug arrest.

“The loss of Mr. Anderson's life was a tragic event for his family, a life-altering event for the officers involved,” Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said.

The panel found no evidence that circumstances surrounding Anderson's death amounted to a crime, a determination already made by prosecutors, but made some recommendations for how police can better track their use of force. “Our highest priority is the preservation of human life,” Batts said.

In West’s case, police have not commented in months, citing the pending investigation. At the time of the incident, police said West fought with officers and suddenly went into “medical distress.”

West’s family and their supporters have been pressing for more information through frequent protests.

A. Dwight Pettit, an attorney who is representing West's family, said the statement from prosecutors about the autopsy does not change his view.

“In my opinion it was the police action ... that brought on or was the causation of this physical distress,” he said.

The police union said the information released Tuesday supported the accounts from officers. Michael Davey, an attorney who works with the Fraternal Order of Police, said the suspended officers had voluntarily given statements and have been cooperating with the investigation. They too, he said, were frustrated with the time it has taken to release the findings.

“They made an arrest of an individual who was being combative, and as soon as he went into distress they got him medical attention,” Davey said.

Councilman Nick J. Mosby said the state's attorney's office had done a poor job of communicating with the public about the case. He described the autopsy findings as having been “thrown over the fence” Tuesday.

“This is just an example of a really poor way of trying to relate and communicate with a family,” said Mosby, whose wife is a candidate for state’s attorney.

Through a spokesman, the state medical examiner’s office declined to discuss the autopsy findings.

Gregory J. Davis, a professor of pathology at the University of Kentucky and an assistant state medical examiner, has not seen the autopsy report but read the state’s attorney’s statement and noted that there was no mention of a beating or asphyxia.

The official cause of death, according to prosecutors, was “cardiac arrhythmia due to cardiac conduction system abnormality complicated by dehydration during police restraint.”

Davis said cardiac conduction system problems generally exist in people who are overweight, have a history of high blood pressure or have abused drugs such as cocaine.

A confrontation with police could create heightened response creating a “huge demand on the heart,” he said.

“If he’s in that situation, that’s often enough to tip an already vulnerable heart over the edge,” Davis said.

A woman was riding in West’s car at the time he was pulled over in the 1300 block of Kitmore Road, though she has not been identified and her account has not been made public. Shawanda Wilson, who lives nearby, was one of multiple people who said at the time that she saw West beaten. She described the incident in July as “really bad, to the point where I got upset.”

But police told City Councilman Bill Henry at the time that West, who was on parole for drug and assault convictions, punched an officer and tried to flee, with a fight playing out across several front yards. The officers used pepper spray to no avail, he said he was told, “and in the course of struggling, he just collapsed.”

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