Petition calling for investigation into death of man with Down syndrome goes viral

Undated photo of Robert Ethan Saylor. (AP Photo/Family photo)

It started with a dispute over a movie ticket in a Maryland movie theater and ended with the death of Robert Ethan Saylor.

Now, Emma Saylor, the sister of the 26-year-old man with Down syndrome who died while in the custody of three off-duty Frederick County deputies, is petitioning Gov. Martin O'Malley for an independent investigation and better training of law enforcement.

“I never thought that anything like this would happen in my town, let alone to my brother,” Emma Saylor, 23, told Yahoo News on the phone. So far, the petition has received over 166,000 signatures — with 52,000 coming in the last 24 hours.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for a statement from Yahoo News.

On Jan. 12, 2013, Robert Saylor, known as Ethan to his family, went to see “Zero Dark Thirty” with his caretaker. At the end of the movie, he wanted to watch it again and refused to leave the theater.

Three off-duty sheriffs who were moonlighting as mall cops approached Saylor and asked him to leave. Saylor’s caretaker told the police that Saylor had Down syndrome and that touching him would only make things worse.

But witnesses say the officers didn’t listen. Instead they pulled Saylor from his seat, threw him to the ground and fell on top of him. Witnesses heard him crying and calling out, “Mommy!” Moments later he stopped breathing and died.

The coroner’s office ruled the death a homicide by asphyxiation. A grand jury decided in March not to indict the three men.

Critics have argued that the use of force was excessive for someone with developmental disabilities.

“We obviously want better training for law enforcement and first responders,” Sara Weir, vice president of advocacy for the National Down Syndrome Society told Yahoo News.

Weir, who has worked closely with the Saylor family and whose organization is also calling for the governor to open an independent investigation, told Yahoo News that Saylor led an independent life and had no history of behavioral problems, attended movies frequently, and was a fan of law enforcement, often calling the police simply to talk to them. She added that the petition was another way to "apply pressure" to the governor's office.

Last month, the Department of Justice opened an investigation to see if Saylor’s civil rights were violated under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

“From our perspective as a national organization, we need to know what happened that night so we make sure something like this never happens again,” Weir said.