Activists call for special prosecutor over death of teenager in custody

On April 21, 2019, a photo provided by Sarah Harrison shows Cedric Lofton of Wichita, Kansas, who died in a Kansas juvenile center in September 2021. A coalition of community groups demanded on Monday January 3, 2022, that a special prosecutor be named in the case after an autopsy report released last week contradicted an earlier preliminary finding that the teen had no life-threatening injuries. The autopsy concluded that it was a homicide. (Courtesy of Sarah Harrison via AP)

PA

A coalition of community groups demanded Monday that a special prosecutor be appointed in the case of a black youth who died following a physical struggle with staff at a Kansas juvenile center.

During a rally in Wichita and a letter to local authorities, community activists also called for the release of a video and the names of those implicated in the death of 17-year-old Cedric Lofton. It comes after an autopsy report released last week contradicted an earlier preliminary finding that the teen did not suffer any life-threatening injuries. The autopsy concluded that it was a homicide.

The report says the teenager’s heart and breathing stopped after he was handcuffed while lying on his stomach. Lofton had been briefly in the custody of the Sedgwick County Juvenile Reception and Assessment Center in Wichita when his altercation with staff members occurred on September 24. He was taken to a local hospital and died two days later.

The letter cited what it called false and misleading statements made at an initial press conference by Sedgwick County Prosecutor Marc Bennett and Sheriff Jeff Easter, implying that the death was not the responsibility of the law enforcement. He also cited Bennett’s story of not charging law enforcement officers.

Activists calling themselves the Community Empowerment & Resilience Coalition wrote that “our community has no faith or confidence in the independence” of Bennett. The letter was signed by Lofton’s family and over two dozen other community groups and individuals. He asks for a response before January 10.

Dan Dillon, the spokesperson for Bennett’s office, said in an email Monday that there was no basis under Kansas law for the district attorney’s office to pursue a recusal. He said Bennett planned to complete his death review within 15 days and the public would be notified at that time. No further comments will be made until this review is complete, he said.

The spokesperson for the sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

“Today’s unprecedented community action in Wichita and the peaceful rally at the Sedgwick County building consisted of a diverse coalition of community leaders and organizations committed to fighting for justice for Cedric,” said Andrew M Stroth, a civil rights lawyer who represents the family.

Bennett said last week that an autopsy finding the death was homicide doesn’t necessarily mean employees committed crimes. The designation only means that a person committed an intentional act which resulted in the death of another person. Whether criminal charges can be laid is a separate legal decision.

Lofton’s family and a lawyer had a private screening of the videos involving law enforcement’s meeting with the teenager, but they do not have copies of the video and are calling for its public release. The video shows officers over the teenager at various points, Stroth said.

“The injuries in the autopsy report are consistent with the video which shows the police using excessive force,” Stroth said. “The officers took Cédric’s breath away. Cedric Lofton couldn’t breathe.

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