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Prosecutor: No charges in Black Kansas teen’s custody death

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FILE - This April 21, 2019, photo provided by Sarah Harrison shows Cedric Lofton of Wichita, Kan. A Kansas prosecutor, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett, says Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, he can't file charges over the death of Lofton, a Black 17-year-old who became unresponsive while being restrained after an altercation with staff at a Wichita juvenile center in September. (Courtesy Sarah Harrison via AP)

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas prosecutor said Tuesday that he won’t file criminal charges over the death of a Black 17-year-old who became unresponsive while being restrained facedown for more than 30 minutes following an altercation with staff at a Wichita juvenile center in September.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said the state’s “stand-your-ground” law prevents him from bringing any charges in the death of Cedric Lofton because staff members were protecting themselves. Bennett said that if he did bring charges, “a judge would be duty bound to dismiss the case.”

The teen’s family decried Bennett’s decision, issuing a statement in which they called it “yet another instance of an unarmed Black teenager killed by law enforcement with impunity, threat of reprisal or even an ounce of accountability.”

Community activists previously have called for a special prosecutor, the release of video and the names of the individuals involved in Lofton’s death. Lofton’s brother Marquan Teetz and a local pastor on Tuesday asked a court to release video of the altercation, citing the state’s open records law. The Wichita Police Department on Tuesday released its body camera video.

Lofton was living with foster parents when Wichita police responding to a report of a disturbance encountered him outside a home on Sept. 24, according to a report from Bennett based on a review of video and other evidence. His foster family said Lofton had been behaving erratically in recent months, had become paranoid and was hallucinating, according to the report. Bennett said Lofton was in the midst of a mental health crisis and that police initially tried to get him to seek treatment.

The 5-foot-10, 135-pound Lofton resisted police, assaulting at least one officer before they could restrain him, Bennett’s report said. Police took him to the Sedgwick County Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center, where officers put him in a holding cell at 2:45 a.m. The Wichita officers left the center at 4:15 a.m., leaving Lofton unrestrained with an intake specialist who opened the door to Lofton’s holding cell.

Bennett said the intake specialist later told investigators that he informed Lofton he would be released to his guardian. The teen walked out of the cell. A security officer arrived and tried to help get Lofton back into the holding room after Lofton tried to grab a computer monitor from the intake counter. Lofton hit the intake specialist, knocking his glasses to the ground, according to Bennett’s report.

The two staff members then struggled with Lofton before more staff members arrived. Staff then shackled Lofton’s ankles, put him on his stomach on the floor, then struggled with him some more before handcuffing him, according to Bennett. Around that time, staff said Lofton began to snore, Bennett’s report says.

A few minutes later, staff members realized Lofton had no pulse. They began chest compressions and called emergency personnel, just before 5:15 a.m., the report said.

A December autopsy report ruled the death a homicide and contradicted an earlier, preliminary finding that the teenager had not suffered apparent life-threatening injuries. The autopsy said that the teen’s heart and breathing stopped after he was handcuffed while lying on his stomach.

Bennett said there are legitimate policy questions, including about whether Lofton should have instead been taken to a mental health facility and whether the use of a restraint system was appropriate, but that none of the questions justify criminal charges.

Bennett said he struggled with whether a charge of involuntary manslaughter was justified, but concluded that it was not.

“The bottom line is: The video, the interviews of the employees, even the coroner’s findings that the death was caused by the effect of a prolonged struggle support the workers’ explanation that they only held him down because he continued to struggle that entire time,” Bennett said. “If they have the ability to defend themselves initially, because he resisted, then the fact that he continued to resist for some 30 minutes meant that they could under Kansas law continue to lawfully apply the restraint.”

Bennett, a Republican, said he said he would like to see the Legislature change Kansas’ stand-your-ground law, which provides immunity from prosecution, not just a possible defense at trial.

“This should never have happened,” Bennett said. “It should never happen again.”

The Sedgwick County Department of Corrections said it would form a community task force to review Lofton’s death and make recommendations for systemic improvements.

“Cedric Lofton’s death was very tragic for his family, our community and for those working in our youth corrections system. It is important that as a local public safety entity in our local government, we are accountable and transparent with our community members,” said Director Glenda Martens.

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