Death on Dexter

Grisly details and grieving family fail to sway all-white jury.

Everyone expected the jury to take more than three hours to sort out how a scuffle with police last December left 34-year-old Michael Ealy battered, bloodied, and dead. The six panelists took copious notes during the six days of testimony from more than 30 witnesses, but nonetheless speedily answered more than 40 questions posed by the court last Wednesday around noon.

Although the jury found that the officers and an ambulance medic did press their knees into Michael Ealy's neck and back, resulting in "chest and neck compression" which was "a cause of the death," the jurors unanimously agreed that the restraint efforts were "necessary." The findings offer considerable political cover to the city, accused of police brutality, and the county, which has little interest in prosecuting the Seattle Police Department.

Attorney Anne Bremner, who represented Seattle Police Officers Thomas McLaughlin and Richard Traverso, notes that the medical examiner found an inexorable combination of three causes of death—chest and neck compression, cocaine intoxication, and clogged arteries. She said the jury's ruling "exonerates" police and that the use of force was legally justified.

"Don't be silly! That's absolute nonsense!" exclaims Ealy family attorney Lem Howell, who has complained from the outset that questions posed to the inquest jury were "wishy-washy" and slanted to favor the police. The jury "never said the restraint was appropriate."

Judith Ealy, the deceased's sister, says, "I think it was a combination of incompetence, ignorance, and lack of concern." She continues, "I think if he was a white man, he would still be alive. . . . I think the police got pissed and thought, 'We're going to teach this nigger a lesson' and things got carried away."

There are a few undisputed facts that came out during testimony. Witnesses saw Ealy crying for help and waving down traffic in the middle of Dexter Avenue on December 28. By the time police and paramedics arrived, Ealy had apparently given up and was lying on the sidewalk. According to witnesses, he was vomiting on himself and couldn't stand on his own but pleaded with police and firefighters: "Gimme a break. I've got kids. Let me go home."

Firefighter Patrick Dunn, who was at the scene, told inquest jurors that "he seemed a little too out of it. [I felt,] 'This guy needs to go to the hospital.'" An ambulance was called for transport, and according to all reports, Ealy calmly climbed onto the stretcher that was to carry him to Harborview Medical Center.

Ambulance driver Brett Munsey says the calm didn't last. Munsey pulled over less than 10 blocks from the pickup scene when, through his rearview mirror, he saw Ealy, suddenly invigorated, lunging at his partner, Danny Hill. "That's the one thing I remember distinctly," Munsey testified. "He had a crazed look in his eyes, like he wasn't completely there." Then, in one of the most dramatic moments of the inquest hearing, Munsey demonstrated how he and Hill restrained Ealy using a mannequin provided by the court. First, Munsey showed how his partner held Ealy in a headlock before all three of them fell out of the ambulance and onto Dexter Avenue. As Munsey testified, the far side of the courtroom, packed with Ealy's family and friends—almost all black—stood up to see over the rows full of white police, firefighters, ambulance workers, and reporters. Munsey wore a suit and an uncomfortable smile on his face as he stepped out of the jury box, placed the mannequin face down on the courtroom carpet, and demonstrated how he had his knees in Ealy's back.

"Mr. Ealy was very strong," Officer Traverso later testified. "I never ran across anyone that powerful before. It seemed like he was only getting stronger. . . . It was just incredible." Police fired pepper spray at Ealy with little effect. Traverso then testified that Ealy managed to reach up with his head and bite his right knee cap. "My leg really hurt a lot," the gray-haired police veteran testified, pointing to barely visible teeth marks on a Polaroid of his leg taken at the scene. Disbelieving whispers from the far side of the courtroom were plainly audible: "You've got to be kidding me."

The Polaroids of Officer Traverso's knee and another of a pink "scratch" on the ring-finger of another police officer contrasted sharply with the autopsy photos of Ealy: His face was badly bruised, especially his lips, and there were large red gashes around his eyes. Ealy's mother testified that she didn't even recognize her son when she went to identify his body at the coroner's office. "I can't see how one human being could treat another human being that way," she said.

Despite the inquest ruling largely corroborating the police version of events, Howell says he will file a private claim against the city and ambulance company for wrongful death, negligence, and reckless disregard for Ealy's life. The prosecutor's office is not expected to bring charges against anyone involved.

 
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