New evidence raises questions about police killings in Mississippi

When Damien Cameron's body arrived at the Mississippi State Medical Examiner's Office in August 2021, it showed all the signs of a police brutality case.

Mr. Cameron's face was bloody and swollen almost beyond recognition from a week earlier when he had an argument with the Rankin County Sheriff's Deputy.

Signs of internal bleeding on the neck of Mr Cameron, a 29-year-old black man, suggested an officer may have pinned him to the ground with a knee – a dangerous restraint technique condemned by the Justice Department and banned in many cities.

But when the state's chief medical examiner, Dr. Staci Turner, completing her autopsy, ruled Mr Cameron's cause of death was “undetermined”. A grand jury later declined to indict the MPs involved.

Now three renowned pathologists who examined Mr. Cameron's autopsy report for the New York Times and Mississippi Today say his death should have been ruled a homicide.

After independent The experts reviewed autopsy photos, sheriff's reports, hospital records and eyewitness testimony that two police officers knelt on Mr Cameron's neck for ten minutes or more and concluded that the officers most likely killed him.

His death was “absolutely murderous,” said Dr. Michael Baden, a former chief medical officer for the City of New York who testified at the OJ Simpson trial and performed an independent autopsy on George Floyd. “This person died from asphyxiation due to neck compression.”

“There's really no reason to be indecisive,” said Dr. Zhongxue Hua, head of the Department of Forensic Pathology at Rutgers University.

The opinions of these forensic experts provide new ammunition for Mr Cameron's family, who have been struggling to bring awareness to his death for more than two years. Despite local media coverage and two news site articles insiderMr. Cameron's death never went public like the cases of George Floyd or Eric Garner.

Mr Cameron's mother, Monica Lee, described her son as an outgoing young man who was quick to turn strangers into friends with his smile. Ms. Lee has always claimed that officers killed her son by forcibly subduing him and ignoring his screams that he could not breathe. She predicted that the investigation into his death “would be a bunch of lies.”

Ms. Lee sued the department in 2022.

Her lawyer, Malik Shabazz, said the independent pathologists' conclusions could change the outcome of Ms Lee's case. “There are serious doubts about the competence and accuracy of the autopsy results,” he said.

According to departmental files and reports from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, Mr. Cameron is one of at least nine men to have died in incidents involving Rankin deputies since 2014.

Rankin County, a rural, white-majority community outside of Jackson, was rocked by nationwide controversy this year after five sheriff's deputies and a local police officer broke into the home of two black men, torturing them for two hours and sexually assaulting them attacked sex toys and then shot one of them in the mouth. All officers have pleaded guilty to federal and state charges.

On August 3, Deputy Hunter Elward admitted to putting his gun in the mouth and firing of 32-year-old Michael Jenkins. According to a Justice Department investigation, he and the other officers, all white, covered up their crimes by planting a gun and drugs on their victims, discarding security camera footage and fabricating sheriff's reports.

“Obviously, these officers cannot be trusted,” said Sean Tindell, Commissioner for the Mississippi Department of Public Safety. “There's probably going to be a lot of reviews on every case they've ever worked on.”

Mr Elward was one of two MPs accused of kneeling on Mr Cameron on the day of his death.

The only witnesses to Mr Cameron's arrest on July 26, 2021 were the deputies, Ms Lee and her parents.

That afternoon, a neighbor called police to report a burglary he believed Mr Cameron committed at his home in a quiet, rural area near Braxton, Mississippi, court records show.

When Deputy Elward arrived for the examination, Mr. Cameron, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, threw himself at him and ran off, the sheriff's report said.

Deputy Elward fired his taser and attacked Mr. Cameron, what he claimed in his sheriff's report, punching him three times in the face before Deputy Luke Stickman arrived to help subdue and arrest the man.

Mr Cameron continued to resist officers as they led him outside and pushed him into a squad car, MP Elward claimed in his report.

Shortly thereafter, he found that Mr. Cameron was not responding. Paramedics took him to the University of Mississippi Medical Center, where his death was pronounced.

Mr Cameron's family said they witnessed a very different encounter.

In interviews with reporters, Ms. Lee said her son never tried to hit the deputy.

Hours after the incident, Mr. Cameron's grandfather told agents at the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation that he saw an officer put his knee on his grandson's neck as he lay on the ground. MPs made no mention in their reports of kneeling on Mr Cameron.

Ms Lee told reporters that MPs Elward and Stickman knelt on Mr Cameron's neck and back for at least 10 minutes.

“He told me he couldn't breathe, he couldn't breathe,” she said.

Mr Cameron's mother told reporters that he had difficulty walking when officers took him to the squad car and fell face down in the mud in front

There is no video footage of the incident.

In a written statement, Sheriff Bryan Bailey said the department had not yet used body worn cameras in Mr Cameron's arrest. Mississippi does not require law enforcement to use them.

With no footage to back up her claims, Ms Lee hoped her son's autopsy would finally shed light on the truth about his death.

But after the coroner's report came back “undetermined,” a grand jury declined to indict the MPs.

“It was heartbreaking,” Ms. Lee said. “Is that what you do every day and you couldn't determine the cause of his death? Why?”

District Attorney John Bramlett, known as Bubba, who presented the case to the grand jury, did not respond to calls seeking comment on the case.

The medical examiners' findings will serve as a legal basis for prosecutors to bring charges against officers involved in fatal incidents, legal experts said.

“The only person in a homicide who can testify on the last question — that the manner of death was homicide — is a coroner,” said Aramis Ayala, a former Florida prosecutor and professor at Florida A&M University School of Law.

Prosecutors rarely pursue murder charges against police officers. Without an official cause of death, the chances of convincing a grand jury to indict an officer are slim, experts said.

dr Turner declined to discuss the details of Mr Cameron's autopsy but said there was nothing unusual about her decision not to give a cause of death.

In cases where her office lacks information or the cause cannot be clearly identified, “we err on the ‘undetermined' side because we don't want to make a mistake,” she said.

dr Turner declined to comment on what police documents and witness statements she had access to when she performed the autopsy. However, in her report she wrote: “Due to the lack of access to information about the circumstances of this death, the cause and manner of death are best classified as undetermined.”

All three independent forensic pathologists said the coroner should have tracked down the information she needed to make a decision. The bleeding in Mr Cameron's throat made it clear he had suffocated, they said.

“They shouldn't have declared it indefinite and abandoned it,” said Dr. Cyril Wecht, past president of the American College of Legal Medicine and the American Academy of Forensic Science. “It was up to them to get more information from the police.”

A toxicology report found methamphetamine in Mr Cameron's blood, but pathologists agreed the drug did not cause his death.

Coroners said the agency would reconsider the case if requested to do so by the Mississippi Attorney General or the local attorney general's office.

“It was undetermined,” said Mr Tindell, the commissioner for the public safety department. “That doesn't mean it can't be determined later.”

A representative for the attorney general's office referred reporters to District Attorney Bramlett, who did not respond to requests for comment.

In a written response to The Times, Sheriff Bailey said his department cooperated with the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation's investigation and found that the bureau found no wrongdoing.

“Upon request, we will fully cooperate with any law enforcement agency in any future investigation into this incident,” Sheriff Bailey wrote.

Mr Shabazz said he plans to consult with the pathologists and update Ms Lee's lawsuit to include their findings. He hopes the new information will prompt state officials to reconsider the case.

Ms. Lee said she just wanted the world to know the truth.

“That's what they did to my kid,” she said. “You can't tell me it was indefinite.”

Nate Rosenfield and Brian Howey are reporters for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting at Mississippi Today, a nonprofit newsroom that reports on the state.

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