DA: Decision Not To Charge Charlotte Officers In Harold Easter's Death Was Difficult
Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather says it would have been unethical for him to have filed charges against the five Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officers involved in Harold Easter's death while in police custody.
Merriweather says this does not mean he thinks the officers handled the arrest appropriately, but that he could not prove beyond reasonable doubt that a criminal violation had occurred. Police arrested Easter in January during a drug investigation. That's when Easter swallowed a large amount of cocaine. He was not given medical attention but was taken to a CMPD station where he was left alone at times in violation of the department's policies.
Easter lost consciousness and was taken to a hospital, where he died three days later. CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings has recommended that the five officers involved in the case be fired. Merriweather says his decision not to file charges against them was a difficult one.
Spencer Merriweather: Realizing that Mr. Easter died in the way that he did and considering the involvement of the five officers, it really raised a question of negligence, criminal negligence and the one relevant charge that addresses criminal negligence is involuntary manslaughter. There's a few things that the state would have to prove in order to be able to advance on that kind of prosecution.
First one is that the officers knew or should have known that he ingested cocaine. Two, that those officers had a legal duty to seek medical attention. Three, that they failed to do that. And the fourth one is that that failure to seek medical attention was the proximate cause of Mr. Easter's death. And it's that fourth one that really caused the most difficulty in proceeding forward.
Three medical professionals, including the medical examiner as well as the admitting physician from Mr. Easter and a state toxicologist all said that they could not, with a degree of medical certainty, say that if medical attention had been sought at the time of the traffic stop and it would have saved Mr. Easter's life. That is an insurmountable hurdle for the state in proceeding in a criminal prosecution, and that was a problem for us...
Gwendolyn Glenn: And let me ask you this. Why were they not able to say that? Because if you got them to the hospital, quickly pump their stomach, seems like their life would have been saved. Why was that so hard to prove? Did they tell you?
Merriweather: The large amount of cocaine that was digested, that it was at such a large amount, around 3.5 grams of cocaine, it is quickly absorbed into the system. In fact, when the toxicology report speaks not only to cocaine having been in his system, but cocaine metabolites.
What that means is that the cocaine had already begun to be metabolized, which really speaks to the quick level of absorption. I think that was an indicator to the medical professionals that even an hour, hour and a half after that first police interaction with them, it had already been quickly absorbed.
Glenn: Did they say whether or not if they had taken him directly from the arresting scene to a hospital, would that have made a difference?
Merriweather: The idea is that from the time of the traffic stop, that is sort of when the legal duty begins. And at that point, none of those medical professionals were able to say with any certainty that it would have saved his life. Now, it very well, possibly could have, but the degree of certainty that's needed to proceed in the criminal prosecution just wasn't there.
Glenn: In your letter, you were saying that most people probably would have thought that there was a chance.
Merriweather: Many of us could jump to that conclusion that there was a chance, but that chance isn't the same thing as proximate cause. The law defines proximate cause as a cause without which the person would not have died. And we could not satisfy that burden.
Glenn: Now, it said a full autopsy was not done. Do you think that if a full autopsy had taken place, that they would have had more information to go on?
Merriweather: What the medical examiner told us is that it's common protocol for a case where someone has been admitted to a hospital on an overdose that ... if they've been there for a significant period of time, the information that they're likely to get from an autopsy is the same that is given when reviewed from an admitting physician.
There was nothing that we reviewed that gave us any reason that if an autopsy had been performed immediately that they would have come to a different conclusion.
Glenn: Now, even though you did not recommend that charges be taken against these officers, your report seemed to be very critical, though, of some of their actions. Tell us about some of the things that you were concerned about.
Merriweather: Even before some recent changes by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, their directives already said that folks are supposed to be monitored every 15 minutes and that clearly didn't happen. Also, there should have been folks doing some live monitoring of Mr. Easter, and that clearly didn't happen. So, whether or not, you know, we can make a case, a criminal case for probable or proximate cause, it's clear here that there was a procedural failure.
Glenn: Could you explain to listeners why going against police policy and as you said in this letter, that would not amount to a violation of criminal law? Explain that.
Merriweather: The standard for criminal prosecution, of course, is proof beyond a reasonable doubt. That is not the standard for the investigation that an employee or employer conducts. And merely breaking a regulation or a provision in a department or the standards of an employer is not the same thing as breaking or violating the criminal law.
Glenn: When you first heard about it, did you think that it would end up here, not being able to file charges?
Merriweather: I've been doing this long enough to know you've got to really dig into the facts of each and every case and review their circumstances. I certainly feel and I yesterday had the opportunity to meet with members of Mr. Easter's family.
It goes without saying that I understand the great grief and pain that they must be confronting right now. And I certainly was with them yesterday and saw them experience a great deal of that. I also know that I have a responsibility as a constitutional official to review the evidence and go where it leads, and we believe that's what we did in coming to this decision.
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