The death of a 22-year-old Louisiana man in police custody last week has been ruled a homicide and the four narcotics detectives involved in his apprehension are under investigation.
Keeven Robinson, who was black, died Thursday of compression asphyxia, Jefferson Parish Coroner Dr. Gerry Cvitanovich announced Monday. The findings were consistent with someone squeezing, grabbing or leaning on Robinson’s neck.
“Our initial autopsy findings reveal significant traumatic injuries to the neck,” Cvitanovich said during a news conference, which was streamed live by NOLA.com. “Regarding manner of death, at this point manner of death is homicide.”
The coroner said he is confident that the final autopsy results will match his staff’s preliminary findings, though it will take weeks for the forensic investigation to be finished.
“Our examination and our investigation at this point are not complete,” Cvitanovich said. “We still have a lot of work to do, investigative work. We still have microscopic examination of slides that need to be prepared and examined. We also have toxicology.”
Hester Hilliard, an attorney for Robinson’s family, told NBC News that the preliminary autopsy results exacerbated the family’s already deep grief.
“They had to find out Keeven lost his life at the hands of another, and that's very, very hard for them,” Hilliard said. “And now they have to move on to making funeral arrangements for this 22-year-old, who should not have died.”
Jefferson County Sheriff Joseph Lopinto, who initially cited Robinson’s history of asthma as a potential factor in his death, said during the news conference that he immediately initiated a homicide investigation when he learned the preliminary autopsy findings on Saturday.
His agency’s homicide squad was called in to begin a criminal investigation into the actions of the detectives, who were read their Miranda rights and questioned. All four cooperated and gave statements, the sheriff said.
The detectives, who are all white, have been reassigned to administrative duty for the remainder of the probe. Lopinto declined to name the detectives, but said they may be publicly identified later in the week.
“I understand that this investigation will be under a microscope,” Lopinto said. “I understand it fully.”
Lopinto said he also called in Louisiana State Police investigators to assist in the investigation, as well as federal officials.
“You can never have too many sets of eyes to make sure we’re doing it properly,” the sheriff said.
NOLA.com reported that Robinson, who was suspected of dealing drugs, was the subject of an undercover “sting” operation Thursday. Lopinto said last week that the detectives were waiting at a gas station when Robinson pulled into the parking lot and got out of his vehicle. When he spotted the detectives approaching him, he jumped back into his SUV and drove away.
He allegedly struck two police vehicles as he fled.
After hitting the second patrol car, Robinson exited his vehicle and ran away on foot, Lopinto said. The foot chase went through several yards, with both Robinson and the detectives scaling fences until the investigators cornered Robinson in a backyard, NOLA.com reported.
The detectives got into a struggle with Robinson, who stopped breathing once he was in handcuffs, Lopinto said. The sheriff said the detectives began CPR and paramedics rushed him to Ochsner Medical Center, but he could not be saved.
Robinson was not armed when he was taken into custody, but the detectives said they found a small amount of drugs on him.
Lopinto conceded that the officers “were in a fight” with Robinson and used force to arrest him.
“Our police officers have to use force and are justified in using force on many occasions,” Lopinto said. “But it depends on their use of force compared to what was being done on the scene and what the findings of the science says.”
A reporter asked the sheriff if the department has a policy on the use of chokeholds. He used an analogy when answering the question.
“From a policy standpoint, we don’t train somebody to hit someone with a brick,” he said. “But if you’re fighting for your life and a brick’s there, you hit someone with a brick.
“The reality of it is, those determinations will have to be made, but I’m not coming to the conclusion that this was a chokehold.”
Deputies are not forbidden to use a chokehold, but they are not trained to use them, the sheriff said.
None of the detectives were wearing body cameras and their vehicles were not equipped with dashboard cameras, NOLA.com reported.
Robinson’s family confirmed last week that he suffered from asthma, the news site reported. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality had also issued an air quality alert Thursday for the New Orleans area, which meant that the air had levels of ozone that could be problematic for children, the elderly and people with asthma.
His family puzzled over how the young man with the “cheerful spirit” ended up dead.
“He wasn’t a bad person at all,” Robinson’s cousin, Demone Robinson, told NOLA.com. “I don’t know why this would happen.”
“No one deserves to lose their life in the streets,” Glenda Moran, Robinson’s aunt, said. “It does not matter what you have done.”
Community activists at Monday’s news conference asked Lopinto to suspend narcotics sting operations after what happened. Lopinto declined to do so, citing the department’s responsibility to Jefferson Parish citizens who have complained about drug activity in the area.
One incident’s tragic ending did not negate that responsibility, the sheriff indicated.
“Somebody's family actually lost a life, and I'm very cognizant of that today,” Lopinto said. “That doesn't mean our officers did anything wrong, or it may mean that they did something wrong.
“We have to have the ability to get to that conclusion and put that to the district attorney, let the district attorney make that decision.”
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