How Sickle Cell Trait in Black People Can Give the Police Cover

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In May 1979, Los Angeles pathologists blamed “massive intravascular sickling” in the death of Jerry Eugene Wright Jr., a 20-year-old Black man whom police officers had mistaken for a drug user. In fact, he had been the victim of a violent robbery; they handcuffed him, put him facedown on the ground and ignored bystanders who warned that he was struggling to breathe. Mr. Wright’s family was later awarded $2.1 million after suing for wrongful death.

A panel convened by a coroner outside Augusta, Ga., concluded that Larry Gardner, 33, had died of cardiopulmonary arrest caused by sickle cell trait in August 1984 after the authorities arrested him on marijuana and shoplifting charges. Mr. Gardner’s death led to rioting after it was said that he had been beaten in custody.

Authorities in Burlington County, N.J., cited sickle cell trait in the cases of two brothers who had died in police custody 15 years apart. They used it first to explain the sudden death of Sidney Miles, 20, while he was fleeing officers who sought to arrest him on a charge of driving without a license in 1984.

They cited it again when his brother, Cleathern Miles, 28, stopped breathing in 1999 after the police shot him with pepper spray and restrained him in the midst of an apparent mental breakdown — during which he was calling out his dead brother’s name. The same pathologist, Dr. Dante Ragasa, conducted both autopsies.

“There were allegations of police brutality in Sidney’s death, but that was not the case,” the acting county prosecutor, James Gerrow, told reporters in 1999. “Sadly and tragically, this mirrors what happened to Sidney.”

“There was,” he added, “no police misconduct in either case.”

The death of Martin Lee Anderson, the 14-year-old Florida boy, shows the potential pitfalls when medical examiners rush to blame sickle cell trait.

An autopsy deemed Martin’s death to be natural, saying the trait was why he had suddenly stopped breathing in January 2006. But a later inquiry found that he had died after drill instructors at a Bay County, Fla., juvenile detention center punched and kneed him, pinned him down, pressed their fingers into pressure points and covered his mouth while forcing him to inhale ammonia.