Coroner - Struggle with police primary cause of man's death

Thursday, December 4, 2003

CINCINNATI -- The death of a 350-pound black man who was clubbed by police in a videotaped beating was caused primarily by the struggle that ensued after the suspect lunged and swung at the officers, the coroner said Wednesday in a case that has heightened racial tensions.

Hamilton County Coroner Carl Parrott said Nathaniel Jones, 41, suffered from an enlarged heart, obesity and had intoxicating levels of cocaine, PCP and methanol in his blood.

He said the death will be ruled a homicide, but added that such a decision does not mean police used "excessive force." The coroner said he had to rule the death a homicide because it did not fall under the other categories: accident, suicide or natural.

"Since the struggle was the result of a purposeful act, in this case, the effort by the police to subdue him, to do their jobs, that purposeful act was a primary cause of death," Parrott said.

The coroner said the death was a homicide because the struggle and restraint caused Jones' death, but noted that Jones would have been more likely to survive had he not used drugs, been obese or suffered from the weakened heart. Jones had ingested cocaine within three hours of the struggle and the PCP within five hours, Parrott said.

Black activists say Jones' death was another example of police brutality against blacks in a city that was rocked by race riots two years ago. That unrest was sparked after a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed fleeing black suspect.

But city officials have said the officers in the current case were properly defending themselves against a violent suspect. The officers -- five whites and one black -- were placed on administrative leave, which is standard procedure.

The struggle occurred early Sunday after an employee at a White Castle called 911 to report that a man had passed out on the lawn outside. Emergency personnel arrived and reported that the man was awake and "becoming a nuisance," according to police radio transmissions.

The first two arriving officers were shown on a police video striking Jones after he ignored orders to "stay back," took a swing at an officer and put his arm around one's neck.

The officers later knocked Jones to the ground and fell on him, and jabbed or clubbed him with nightsticks at least a dozen times over several minutes until he was handcuffed. They kept yelling, "Put your hands behind your back!" as they struggled to handcuff him.

Jones' body had bruising on the lower half, but did not show signs of blows to the head or organ damage, the coroner said.

In Jones' car, police found cocaine and three hand-rolled cigarettes that had been dipped in methanol, an ingredient in embalming fluid that gets people high, authorities said.

The coroner's ruling came shortly after lawyers for Jones' family called for an independent investigation, claiming the coroner has mishandled past cases.

"It's hard for me to believe anything that comes out of the coroner's office," attorney Kenneth Lawson said at a news conference.

Relatives said Jones was a loving person who never hurt anyone.

"They talk about Skip like he was an animal," said his grandmother, Bessie Jones. "He wasn't. Skipper was just a good old, fat jolly fella. He wasn't violent."

"Everyone he met, that he touched, loved him," said his aunt, Diane Payton. "He was never mean."

Parrott said he has full confidence in his office's findings.

"We're doing things in the way everyone else does it. We're doing it to national and international standards," he said.

John Ester, spokesman for the prosecutor's office, said the office was in the preliminary stages of investigating the scuffle and was still awaiting the results of a police investigation.

Police Capt. Vince Demasi said the ruling was in line with what police expected.

The Justice Department said this week that it has begun gathering information to determine whether an investigation is warranted.

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