By Chinta Strausberg
Seeking justice for a 27-year-old African American man who died while in police custody at the Racine County Jail, Bishop Tavis Grant, national field director for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, late Tuesday night, February 15, said it is time for the Attorney General from the state of Wisconsin to intervene and assign a special prosecutor to this case.
Malcolm Isaiah James died on June 1, 2021 while in custody at the Racine County Jail, one of two prisoners to die in a four-day period.
Grant also pointed an accusatory finger at Racine County District Attorney Tricia Hanson, who said, “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the James’ family for their loss,” yet refused to file charges against the officers.
And while Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling in a very public way said James killed himself while in the lockup by banging his head against the wall, Dr. Jessica Lelinski, the Milwaukee County Assistant Medical Examiner, concluded James’ death was a homicide.
At the time of James’ death, as seen on the video, six to eight officers were involved, along with a nurse who has since been fired.
Lelinski said in her report despite no physical signs of asphyxia, she ruled the cause of death as asphyxia after watching a video. She said asphyxia is a diagnosis of exclusion when nothing else is obvious.
Grant said it was James who called 911 indicating he was having a mental health crisis. Police arrested James for allegedly setting a fire in his apartment; however, his brother said police should have treated this as “a cry for help” as opposed to committing a crime.
“He was inside with the fire. He didn’t set the apartment on fire and leave and try to get away,” his brother Thomas James said.
“He set the apartment on fire and was inhaling the smoke,” said his brother, Thomas James. “He wasn’t mentally there and I know my brother.”
James was taken to a hospital and later transported to the Racine County Jail. On June 1, 2021, James was on a suicide watch in the Racine County Jail where he and a 22-year-old Hispanic man died within a four-day period.
Grant said James “was strapped in a chair with a stick bag over his head, and one of the officers pulled Mr. James unto his chest and one of the coroners says he died by asphyxia. He was literally suffocated.
“On the video, you can hear Mr. James pleading with the officers saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’ The Racine County District Attorney failed to file charges against the officers,” Grant said.
He criticized District Attorney Hanson for failing to file charges against the officers but also for taking the opinions of a medical expert and a use of force expert hired by the state and not the Milwaukee coroner.
Hanson disputed the Milwaukee coroner’s findings of James’ death as a homicide. Rather, she accepted the findings of Dr. Tom Neuman, a national expert in Respiratory Physiology and Asphyxia.
Neuman said, “given what appears to be the sequence of events in this case, asphyxiation is essentially impossible.”
Neuman believes James was not bent forward which would have caused him to die. He said James suffered from significant heart disease, obesity, hypertensive cardiovascular disease and an enlarged heart that he believes put him at risk for a sudden cardiac death. Neuman believes that James died of a heart attack.
Hanson also took the word of Dr. Darrell Ross, a national expert in the use of force in law enforcement corrections, who said through James’ threatening, self-injurious and dangerous behaviors it was James who created the need for the officers to provide him with close supervision.
Ross concluded that, “The use of force by correction officers was appropriate and reasonable to protect him. The actions of the officers did not cause nor contribute to the death of Mr. James.”
But, Grant viewed Hanson’s conclusions as suspect. “Hanson has had a pattern and practice of coming out of her office where there have been really questionable cases involving African Americans where there have been mysterious reasons why the appropriate charges have been filed.
“This is the most egregious of incidents because there is no logical reason why Mr. James did not receive appropriate health care, mental health and emergency services while in the custody of the Racine Sheriff ’s Department,” Bishop Grant.
“Mr. James did not pose a threat. He was out-numbered, outmanned, and he was detained,” Bishop Grant said. “There is no logical reason he died the way he died in custody in that jail.”