Tyrone West files show passenger's account of death in police custody

Woman told investigators he fought police, then gave up

January 23, 2014|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

A key witness in the case of Tyrone West — whose death in police custody has sparked a citywide debate — told investigators that West fought with officers, but that they continued to hit him after he gave up, according to documents released this week.

"He was saying, 'You got me, you got me, stop hitting me,'" Corinthea Servance told detectives. "Natural instinct, you're going to ward them off. … I was screaming at him, just lay down. Whatever they're telling you to do, take the pain. Just lay down."

The police officers involved in the July 18 incident also told prosecutors that West gave up at one point — but resumed a violent struggle as they tried to take him into custody, requiring other officers to jump into the fray. One officer remarked to a colleague that it was the "fight of my life."

The interviews provide more clarity about a controversial case that has been marked by divergent accounts from police, witnesses and West's family. Accounts from Servance, 44 — the only nonpolice witness to see the entire incident — and police officers were part of an investigative file released this week under a Public Information Act request.

The medical examiner's office ruled that West, 44, died because of a heart condition exacerbated by the struggle with police and the summer heat. But his relatives remain convinced that the officers caused his death, and the case has prompted regular protests and allegations that police are abusive.

In December, the Baltimore state's attorney's office decided that the officers' response to the "chaotic" situation followed their training and they would not face criminal charges. Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts has pledged to convene an outside panel of law enforcement experts to review the case.

The dispute started with a traffic stop in the 1300 block of Kitmore Road. In her interview with homicide detectives that night, Servance said she was in the car with West, whom she knew as "James." She said he was an unlicensed cab driver who often gave her rides. She had called him to get a ride from her mother's house.

As they drove away, she asked him to double back. They were riding in his sister's 1999 Mercedes-Benz.

"Just back up a little and go down the street," the woman said she told West.

The officers initially drove past him, then did a three-point turn and turned on the emergency lights on their unmarked car.

Documents from the investigative file show that plainclothes officers Jorge Bernardez-Ruiz and Nicholas Chapman, who work in the Northeastern District's operations unit, pulled him over because he had reversed his vehicle in an intersection and because they had observed "lots of furtive movements" inside.

Servance, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, told detectives that night that Chapman asked her if she had ever been arrested and repeatedly asked her, "When's the last time you got high?" She said Bernardez-Ruiz then asked her to sit on the curb, which made her feel like a "criminal." West was already out of the car and sitting on the curb with his feet crossed, she said.

She said Chapman went through her pocketbook, taking out "everything — my keys, my lotion, my umbrella, my ID, my money pouch" and questioning whether a folded receipt had drugs inside.

Police found no drugs on her or in the car. But as they did a pat down of West, who they said had been cooperative to that point, they saw a bulge in his sock, later determined to be a small amount of cocaine.

West pushed the officer, the woman and police both say. West had prior drug charges and was out on parole, with a violation potentially sending him back to prison until 2020, records show.

The ensuing fight seemed to go on for 10 minutes, Servance said.

"They were fighting, and they got on the police car. They fell on the ground, and they were fighting," she said, describing the situation as surreal. "All I was doing was going to my mother's house."

David Gray, a criminal law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and an expert on the Fourth Amendment, said a traffic violation is justification to pull over the car and ask the occupants to step out and be searched.

If the occupants give their consent to a search, "basically the Fourth Amendment disappears."

But he said the case raises broader issues related to how such enforcement is applied.

"If we want to avoid perpetuating an antagonistic relationship between police and citizens, it's not enough to ask whether they toed the Fourth Amendment line," Gray said. "There are bigger questions about how officers are incentivized, how they're trained and who they choose to target or not target."

Robert F. Cherry, president of the city police union, said police have a mandate to get guns off the street, and must do so within the boundaries of the Constitution.

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