FREDERICK, Md. — A man with Down syndrome who died in police custody in a Frederick movie theater was trespassing when he refused to vacate a seat for which he had not paid, a lawyer for the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office said Tuesday.
Baltimore attorney Daniel Karp said the three deputies who restrained Robert Ethan Saylor took action based on their training and their perception of the situation.
“The management didn’t want him there without paying for a ticket. That’s trespassing. That’s a crime. Not a big crime, maybe — but that’s a crime,” Karp said in a telephone interview.
Saylor, 26, died of asphyxiation Jan. 12 after the deputies, moonlighting as mall security officers, were called to remove him after he walked back in for a repeat showing of “Zero Dark Thirty.” They wrestled the flailing, cursing, 294-pound man out of his seat and down an exit ramp, where they handcuffed him after he fell or was dropped onto his belly, according to police records. He went into cardiac arrest at the theater and lost consciousness on the floor; he was revived by the deputies but never regained consciousness before he was pronounced dead at a hospital.
The state medical examiner’s office ruled Saylor’s death a homicide, meaning he would not have died except for the officers’ actions. A county grand jury declined to indict them.
Saylor’s personal care aide, an 18-year-old woman, had told the officers that Saylor had Down syndrome and that he would “freak out” if they touched or spoke to him, according to witness statements contained in the investigative file released Monday. Despite her pleading, Sgt. Rich Rochford told Saylor he was going to jail and then hauled him from his seat with help from Lt. Scott Jewell and Deputy First Class James Harris, numerous witnesses said.
Saylor’s family, along with the National Down Syndrome Congress and the National Down Syndrome Society, have called for an independent investigation of Saylor’s death. Karp said the sheriff’s office did a good job investigating its own deputies.
“I think that a fair reading of this investigation would convince anyone but the most die-hard skeptic that it was, in fact, balanced, thorough and objective,” he said.
It’s not clear how Saylor’s breathing became obstructed. His larynx was damaged but no one reported seeing police apply a choke hold or other external force to his neck. The autopsy found that Saylor’s developmental disability, obesity, atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and a heart abnormality contributed to the death.
The Saylor family’s lawyers said Tuesday the deputies should have heeded the aide’s warnings and waited five minutes for Saylor’s mother to arrive.
“If they had waited and followed her instructions and handled it the way it should have been handled, he would not have been dead that night,” attorney Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum said.
Her law firm partner, Joseph Espo, said the deputies should not have been driven by the approaching start time of a 10:50 p.m. movie in a theater that wasn’t full.
“Obviously, law enforcement officers do not make every arrest that they could. They clearly don’t write every traffic ticket that a driver is eligible to get. They should have exercised discretion and said, ‘The gentleman has a disability. We’ll stand by in case we are needed. But in the meantime, we’re going to let the aide and the family work on this problem.'”
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