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Pathologist claims N.J. in-custody death was homicide inside ambulance

Independent autopsy of Jameek Lowery counters the state’s cause of death due to cardiac arrest while under the influence of bath salts

Lethal Restraint Race

Protesters raise their hands as they face police officers during a rally in Paterson, N.J., Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019, in reaction to the death of Jameek Lowery. Lowery, 27, who recorded a frantic video at police headquarters, wound up unresponsive after being taken to a hospital in an ambulance with police officers inside. He died two days later.

Danielle Parhizkaran/The Record via AP

By Richard Cowen

PATERSON, N.J. — Jumilyha Lowery hasn’t stopped counting the days since her brother, Jameek, stumbled into Paterson police headquarters, screaming that someone was trying to kill him.

“It’s been five years, three months and five days,” Jumilyha said recently of the morning of Jan. 5, 2019, when Jameek burst into the police station high on drugs and in the throes of an emotional breakdown. “Not a day goes by that I don’t count,” she said.

Earlier that morning, Jameek went to St. Joseph’s Hospital to seek help, according to a lawsuit filed by his family. But he was quickly discharged after he became agitated and scuffled with security.

He later arrived — barefoot — at the police station, where he did a Facebook Live video in which he screamed that the police were going to kill him. Afterward, police accompanied him in an ambulance to the hospital, attempting to restrain him as he thrashed about, the lawsuit claims. Upon arrival, he had sustained bruises to his face and was in cardiac arrest. Two days later, he died, sparking angry protests.

The autopsy conducted by the State Medical Examiner attributed the cause of death to “cardiac arrest “during active psychosis while under the influence of Acute N-Ethyl Pentylone,” a street drug known as bath salts. The Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office later cleared police and medics of using excessive force.

[RELATED: Remember 2 Things: Care considerations for ingestion of bath salts]

But the results of a recently publicized independent autopsy run counter to the official story. The independent autopsy, conducted by noted forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden at the behest of Lowery’s family, suggests that Jameek was killed.

Lowery was the victim of “blunt force trauma” to the “face, jaw, arms and chest,” according to the Associated Press, which obtained a copy of the Baden report and published a story on March 29. The report said Baden concluded that Jameek’s death was a homicide.

The Prosecutor’s office is standing by its initial report.

[RELATED: Do fire/EMS personnel have a duty to intervene when excessive force is used?]

Baden, a longtime consultant and a former medical examiner for New York City has conducted numerous independent autopsies in high-profile cases. In recent years, he’s offered opinions on the deaths of George Floyd, whose death at the hands of Minneapolis police in 2020 sparked nationwide riots and protests, and Michael Brown, the unarmed Black teenager who was fatally shot in 2014 by police in Ferguson, Missouri.

The Lowery family hired Baden in 2019 as it prepared to sue for wrongful death.

In his report on Lowery, Baden wrote that he found evidence of “compressive choking,” the AP reported.

“Further, while the county prosecutor had said publicly that Lowery had no broken bones, Baden wrote that X-rays taken before the state autopsy revealed ‘multiple fresh traumatic fractures’ of the fingers on Lowery’s left hand,” the AP said. Baden concluded that Lowery’s death was a “homicide,” and not an accident, as the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office has maintained.

Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes did not respond to phone messages and an email request for comment.

But in an Aug. 12, 2019 statement in which she made public the findings of the state medical examiner’s autopsy, Valdes said the police use of force was “unrelated” to Lowery’s death.

“The Medical Examiner determined that the ingestion of the bath salts by Mr. Lowery coupled with pre-existing medical conditions triggered an adverse reaction including multiple organ failures and cardiac arrest that ultimately led to his death,” Valdes wrote. “This reaction was occurring during the police and medical personnel’s interaction with Mr. Lowery and was independent and unrelated to any force utilized.”

Standing Orders With Dr. Tan: ‘Bath Salts’ Ingestion:

Valdes wrote there was no evidence that the first responders caused Lowery’s death. She said the prosecutor’s office consulted with the state Attorney General’s Office but determined that the officer’s actions did not violate state use-of-force guidelines.

“The overall investigation did not reveal any evidence of correlation between the actions of the responding officers or firefighters, including any force used by the officers, and Mr. Lowery’s death,” she said in the 2019 statement.

The Associated Press report on the Baden autopsy is a walkup to a PBS /Frontline documentary about the often-deadly consequences of police restraint scheduled to air nationally on public television stations on April 30.

The documentary concludes that Black people make up roughly 12% of the population but were victims in one-third of the fatal encounters with police. The Lowery case is featured prominently in the documentary.

The state Attorney General’s Office took command of the Paterson police department in 2023, seeking to root out corruption and restore public confidence amid numerous complaints of police brutality and wrongful deaths. In January, the department announced that 48 officers had completed training in hostage negotiation and crisis intervention, a course that teaches officers how to de-escalate a situation rather than use force to resolve it.

The AG’s office declined to comment on the findings in the Baden report.

Lowery died just weeks before a change in state law took police-involved death investigations out of the hands of county prosecutors, requiring instead that the Attorney General’s Office conduct them. His death prompted protesters to storm Paterson’s City Hall, angry about the death of another Black man in police custody and skeptical that the prosecutor’s office would conduct a fair and impartial investigation. Some activists still want the Department of Justice to reopen the investigation into Jameek’s death.

“All this does for us is increase the need for the Department of Justice to come in and take a look at this case,” said Zellie Thomas, the Paterson organizer for Black Lives Matter. “You look at Jameek’s face when he’s doing his Facebook Live in the police station, and there are no bruises. Then he gets to the hospital, he’s in cardiac arrest, and there are bruises all over his face.”

As a matter of policy, the U.S. Attorney’s Office does not confirm if an investigation is underway. But a spokesman said it is watching the Lowery case.

“While we cannot comment on whether the [ U.S. Attorney’s Office] is investigating a specific matter, the office is committed to obtaining and reviewing all relevant evidence regarding potential federal civil rights crimes,” said Matthew Reilly, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark.

The Lowery family hired Baden days after Jameek’s death to conduct an independent autopsy. In July 2020, a lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court, accusing the hospital of medical negligence and Paterson police officers of using excessive force.

[RELATED: Preventing in-custody deaths]

The lawsuit names Paterson police officers Michael Avila, Kyle Mucio Lucero and Kyle Wanamaker, St. Joseph’s University Medical Center and the City of Paterson. St. Joseph’s has since settled, according to an attorney assigned to the case.

The attorneys for Avila and Wanamaker declined to comment.

But Lucero’s attorney, Joel M. Miklacki, stood by prosecutors’ findings and the state medical examiner’s report.

“This matter was independently investigated by the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office, and they spoke to dozens of witnesses and reviewed hours of videotapes,” Miklacki said. “They generated a report of over 250 pages. They independently came to the conclusion that the officers did nothing wrong.”

The case appears to be headed for trial and U.S. District Court Judge Andre S. Espinosa has set a May 30 deadline for attorneys to complete depositions of expert witnesses.

Jumilyha Lowery said the Associated Press report wasn’t news to her. She said Baden read the results during a teleconference call with her, her mother and aunt five years ago.

“He said it was a homicide in his eyes,” she said. “He said my brother died in the back of the ambulance. My brother had no pulse when he arrived at the hospital.”

Jumilyha said she made a promise after he brother’s death to seek justice.

“This isn’t about the money,” she said. “I want justice to be served.”

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