Why a new state law makes another review of Tyrone West’s death complicated

Published 7/24/2023 5:30 a.m. EDT, Updated 7/27/2023 9:47 a.m. EDT

The family of Tyrone West, the Baltimore man who died in 2013 during a traffic stop in which police beat him with batons and pinned him to the ground, say they have new evidence they hope will lead officials to reinvestigate his death.

Meanwhile, leaders of two offices that may have the authority to launch a new investigation are saying it’s within the purview of the other office.

West’s family and supporters have long maintained that he was murdered by police, and this week marked 10 years of West Wednesdays — weekly protests at the intersection where he died, spearheaded by his sister Tawanda Jones.

A law passed by the Maryland General Assembly this year allows the state attorney general to prosecute police officers involved in encounters that result in death or serious injury.

Jones hopes that the new evidence and the new law, which is set to go into effect in October, will lead to a fresh inquiry into her brother’s death. She said she discussed the matter with Baltimore City State’s Attorney Ivan Bates, who agreed the additional information merits a new inquiry and requested that Attorney General Anthony Brown launch one, citing a conflict of interest.

But a spokesperson for Brown said the attorney general’s office only has the power to prosecute police officers for deaths and injuries that occur after Oct. 1, not for prior cases.

That leaves some confusion about what exactly may happen next in West’s case. Here’s a breakdown of the factors at play.

What is the new evidence?

Baltimore Police officers pulled over West, 44, in the 1300 block of Kitmore Road on July 18, 2013, according to news reports and official accounts.

Police officers Nicholas Chapman and Jorge Omar Bernardez Ruiz pulled West over because he had reversed his car in an intersection and they alleged they saw “furtive movements” inside. The officers suspected West had drugs when they saw a bulge in his sock after he left the car.

Police said that while West initially complied with their orders, he later resisted. The incident escalated, with additional police arriving and officers using pepper spray and batons on West and pinning him down. None of the officers faced criminal charges.

A 2013 autopsy found that West died from a heart issue that was worsened by dehydration, heat and the struggle with police, while an independent autopsy in 2016 pegged the cause of death as asphyxiation while being restrained.

West’s family says that during depositions as part of a civil lawsuit in 2016, individuals who were involved gave contradictory statements, according to a summary that Bates sent to Brown’s office on July 6. The family also has alleged as part of that lawsuit that Baltimore Police never produced proof that West had drugs on him, one of the purported reasons for stopping his car.

West’s family said that they pressed the prior state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, to reopen the case but never got a response. After Bates was elected last year, they took up the matter again and urged him to send the case to Brown.

Whose duty would the investigation be?

Bates is asserting that Brown, the attorney general, can investigate the case and bring criminal charges if they’re warranted. But the law indicates that’s not the case.

For a long time, it was the responsibility of local police and state’s attorneys to investigate deaths and serious injuries involving police. But that changed starting in 2021, when a state law went into effect turning over the investigatory power to a new division of the state Office of the Attorney General.

And as of Oct. 1 of this year, the Office of the Attorney General will handle prosecution of those cases, as well — a change approved by state lawmakers earlier this year that state’s attorneys, including Bates, opposed.

Bates argued in a letter to Brown earlier this month that West’s case deserves another look.

“Since his death, in 2013, Ms. Jones and other relatives have obtained additional information that I believe warrants a new investigation into this incident. Due to the personal conflict that I have, I am unable to conduct a review of this matter,” the Democrat wrote in a July 6 letter to Brown. “However, based on the information that Ms. Jones has provided, I believe it warrants review.”

The conflict, Bates said, is that he is friends with A. Dwight Pettit and Latoya Francis-Williams, two attorneys who have represented West’s family.

Bates has cited the latest change in state law as the reasoning for asking the attorney general investigate.

With passage of this year’s state bill, “the law now grants the power to investigate and hold officers accountable to the Maryland Attorney General,” James Bentley II, a spokesperson for Bates, said in a statement.

But the law is written to apply to cases of deaths involving police going forward, with no mention of older cases, such as West’s, which is now a decade old.

The text of the law, which was signed by Gov. Wes Moore, states: “The provisions of this Act shall apply to any police-involved incident that results in the death of an individual or injury to an individual that occurs on or after the effective date of this Act.”

State Sen. William C. Smith Jr., who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee that reviewed and approved the bill, said lawmakers’ intention was to have the attorney general only prosecuting new cases.

“The intent of our legislation was to apply prospectively,” said Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat, who spoke only about what was allowed under the law and not what should happen in West’s case.

“In the past, there have been agreements between jurisdictions to investigate cases in which there would be an inherent conflict. So the investigation could happen, but it’s unclear that the prosecution could happen,” Smith said.

In other words, it’s possible that the attorney general could voluntarily agree to investigate a case at the request of a state’s attorney. But a prosecution by the attorney general is unlikely because the law doesn’t grant that authority for cases that happened before Oct. 1 this year.

One possibility is that Bates asks another state’s attorney to investigate, and if warranted, prosecute the case.

A spokesperson for Brown said the office still plans to review the request from Bates.

“Our Office will work with the State’s Attorney to better understand his request and to ensure that the family of Tyrone West receives the justice that they deserve,” Jennifer Donelan, a spokesperson for Brown, said in a statement.

Baltimore Banner reporter Cadence Quaranta contributed to this article.

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