DA: Death of Kansas teen in custody not necessarily criminal

·3 min read

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas prosecutor who will decide whether to charge employees of a juvenile center over a Black teen's death said Wednesday that an autopsy's finding that the death was a homicide doesn't necessarily mean the employees committed any crimes.

The statement from District Attorney Marc Bennett in Sedgwick County, home to the state's largest city of Wichita, came after attorneys for the family of 17-year-old Cedric Lofton described his death as “unjustified.” They said Wednesday that they expect Bennett to file criminal charges based on the autopsy and video from a Sept. 24 struggle between Lofton and workers at the county's Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center.

Lofton died at a Wichita-area hospital two days after the altercation. The autopsy concluded that Lofton's heart and breathing stopped after he was pulled to the ground and was handcuffed while lying on his stomach. The report from the county's chief medical examiner said, “The manner of death is homicide.”

But Bennett said in a statement that a medical examiner's designation of a death as a homicide means only that someone committed an intentional act that led to the death of another person. Quoting a guide from the National Association of Medical Examiners, the district attorney said the other options were describing the death as natural, an accident, a suicide or having an undetermined cause.

“The determination that the manner of death was ‘homicide’ does not reflect a legal determination on the part of the pathologist regarding the viability of criminal charges,” Bennett said. “Whether or not criminal charges can be brought is a separate, legal determination to be made by the Office of the District Attorney.”

Bennett said he expects to decide whether to file charges during the second week of January. He said he met Tuesday with Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents and Sedgwick County sheriff's detectives about the case.

The staff members involved in the struggle have not been identified, but the county has said they are on paid administrative leave.

Asked what prompted Wednesday's statement, Bennett spokesperson Dan Dillion said in an email that it is not a response “to any one comment or comments,” adding, “It speaks for itself.”

The results of the Dec. 21 autopsy contradicted a preliminary finding that the teenager hadn’t suffered life-threatening injuries during the Sept. 24 incident — a conclusion announced by Sheriff Jeff Easter during a news conference four days after the teenager's death.

Andrew Stroth, a Chicago civil rights attorney, said he was not surprised by the statement. Stroth and another Chicago attorney, Steven Hart, are representing Lofton's family.

“If you read the autopsy report, they literally took his breath away and killed him,” Stroth told The Associated Press in an interview. “This district attorney has had this evidence for several weeks.”

According to the autopsy report, the 5-foot-10, 135-pound Lofton was brought to the juvenile center at about 1 a.m. Sept. 24 after resisting police and assaulting one or more officers called to the scene of a reported disturbance. The report said that when staff later let Lofton out of a cell to use the restroom, he was uncooperative and punched a staff member in the head.

Family attorneys and others have described Lofton as being “in crisis” rather than dangerous, and Stroth has repeatedly noted that he was unarmed.

“What additional evidence does Marc Bennett need to file criminal charges?” Stroth said. “There’s objective video evidence. There is (an) objective autopsy report. I don’t know what else he possibly could need. ”

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