The family of Tyrone West—a 44-year-old man who died in police custody in July 2013—who have gathered every Wednesday since West's death in order to keep West's name in the news, gathered yesterday in front of the Chief Medical Examiner Office's to address an independent forensic review's findings that dispute West's autopsy.
The review by Dr. William Manion, the chief of pathology at Memorial Hospital of Salem County, New Jersey, claims West did not die of what has been colloquially called a "bad heart" but rather, because he could not breathe—or "positional asphyxia." Manion was hired by the West family, who have filed a multi-million dollar federal lawsuit against officers present at West's death.
"The medical examiner's came out with their foolishness that my brother died of a heart attack and dehydration. First of all, let's clear the record: he never had any heart problems. No health issues whatsoever. Let's make that clear," West's sister Tawanda Jones said, a sign that read "Medical Examiner You Are Under The Bus!!" resting in front of her. "And as you will see in Dr. Manion's report, it was positional asphyxiation. So to me, either the Medical Examiner's Office is incompetent or in cahoots and covering up my brother's brutal murder."
Jones also mentioned how Lt. Melvin Russell came to their house not long after West's death and asked if West had any preexisting conditions. She believes this is evidence that the police narrative about how West died was already in the works.
The state medical examiner found no injuries or evidence of asphyxiation and a Police Internal Review Board said in August 2014 that West died because of how hot it was in July and because of his pre-existing heart condition, which the family asserts did not exist.
The family also intends to demand that West's body be exhumed so that they can conduct an independent autopsy.
Along with new of the independent autopsy review, there has been a series of events which further raised the profile for the family and West's case over the past few months: the anniversary of the Baltimore Uprising (activists connected to West Wednesday were crucial in organizing and playing a role in the larger protests that made up the Baltimore Uprising) has given West's death more attention; a West Wednesday event in March was tied to the Light City Festival; and the civil trial victory in March of Abdul Salaam, who won a $70,000 verdict against two Baltimore police officers, Nicholas Chapman and Jorge Bernardez-Ruiz, both of whom were also present when West was arrested.
There has also been increased pressure on State's Attorney Marilyn Mosby from activists tied to Baltimore Bloc (who have worked closely with the West family) connected to another case, the police shooting of Keith Davis Jr., which culminated in a public confrontation of Mosby by Davis Jr.'s fiance, Kelly Holsey, at the Impact Hub. There, Mosby briskly exited when Holsey challenged Mosby.
This confrontation, which mostly had to do with the Keith Davis Jr. case (though Salaam was present and asked Mosby about "repeat offender" police, referring to Chapman and Ruiz, tied to his case and West's case) appeared to nudge Mosby to comment on West. After the Impact Hub event, Mosby told the Baltimore Sun that she would not reopen the West case unless there was new information.
The West family hopes the independent autopsy—first reported by Juliet Linderman of the Associated Press over the weekend—will lead to the case being reopened (something that since-defeated City Councilman Warren Branch recommended last year).
She compared her brother's case to others who died in police custody, most notably Freddie Gray and Anthony Anderson. Since she has been pushing for the case to be reopened in light of the independent review, "the dog and pony show," has started up again, Jones said.
"That's why we're getting his body exhumed and I dare somebody not to sign off on that permit. I dare you."
Along with the West family, a woman who says her son, Desmond Jackson, died under mysterious circumstances in jail in April 2013, also spoke. She wondered whether "maybe it's kind of too late for justice"—to which the West family told her absolutely not—and added that she hasn't been "at rest" since her son's death "because this medical examiner had his body for, like, five days."
"We met a young lady here now who has been searching for answer for three years now. I didn't know this lady from Adam and Eve, she was just here," Jones said. "But God sent us both here at the same time."