O’FALLON, Mo. (AP) — The Missouri NAACP and black lawmakers on Friday urged a new investigation into the death of an African American jail inmate who died in 2017 in a similar circumstance to George Floyd — with a white law enforcement officer’s knee on his neck.
Tory Sanders, 28, died at the Mississippi County Jail in rural Charleston, Missouri, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) south of St. Louis. He had several encounters with officers while jailed and a mental health counselor determined he was suffering from paranoia. Sheriff Cory Hutcheson and eight others then entered the cell to subdue him.
A wrongful death lawsuit said Hutcheson jammed his knee against Sanders’ neck and kept it there for up to three minutes, even as a police officer urged him to stop. Sanders fell into unconsciousness and died.
Missouri’s attorney general at the time, Josh Hawley, investigated but declined to file charges after medical experts concluded that Sanders died of “excited delirium,” not from the knee to the neck or other efforts to control him.
During a news conference Friday, Missouri NAACP President Nimrod Chapel Jr. urged Mississippi County Prosecuting Attorney Darren Cann to file murder charges against Hutcheson and other officers.
But Cann, in a phone interview, said he turned the case over to the attorney general’s office in 2017 because of a conflict of interest — one of his employees is related to Hutcheson. That conflict still exists, so it would be up to the attorney general’s office to reopen the case, Cann said.
Eric Schmitt took over as attorney general after Hawley, a Republican, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2018. Schmitt’s spokesman, Chris Nuele, said in a statement that the attorney general “is committed to thoroughly reviewing all existing and any new evidence to determine whether to reopen the matter. Additionally, we hope to sit down with the NAACP and other interested parties to discuss further.”
Hawley’s spokeswoman, Kelli Ford, said in a statement that when he was attorney general, Hawley “went to court to have the sheriff removed from office, stripped of his badge, charged with state and federal crimes, and sent to prison. Senator Hawley supports any further prosecutorial action the evidence will support.”
Hutcheson does not have a listed phone number and a phone message left with his attorney was not immediately returned.
Floyd’s death on May 25 sparked nationwide protests. Derek Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder after bystander video showed him holding his knee to Floyd’s neck even as the man pleaded for air and eventually stopped moving. The video has sparked protests against police brutality and discrimination around the world.
Democratic state Sen. Karla May of St. Louis said Missourians can’t ignore such a similar case “in our own back yard.”
“In light of what’s happening today in the protests, people who are part of this system of injustice need to be prosecuted in this case,” May said.
The state NAACP issued a MIssouri “travel advisory” in July 2017 over concerns about whether travelers’ civil rights would be respected. The resolution cited legislative action such as passage of a bill weakening the state’s anti-discrimination law, as well as Sanders’ death and racist incidents.
Sanders, of Nashville, Tennessee, ran out of gas on May 4, 2017, in southern Missouri, then hitchhiked and ended up in Charleston.
A day later, Sanders went to the police and told officers there was a warrant out for his arrest in Nashville related to an altercation with the mother of his children. The wrongful death lawsuit said Sanders also told officers: “I need to see a mental health doctor to save my life and my kids’ life.”
He was taken to the jail, where a mental health counselor concluded Sanders was suffering from paranoia as a result of substance abuse, and that he should be hospitalized for observation. But he remained in his cell.
That night, Hutcheson led a team of officers and jailers, wearing helmets and vests and holding a large shield, into Sanders’ cell, according to the lawsuit. Sanders was tackled, pepper sprayed, hit with a stun gun and punched while “pleading for help and struggling to stay alive,” the lawsuit stated.
According to the lawsuit, Hutcheson pressed his left knee on top of Sanders’ neck. A Charleston police officer told Hutcheson at least three times to remove the pressure.
“No, I’m good,” the sheriff responded.
“No lifesaving measures were taken” after Sanders stopped breathing, the suit stated. Emergency medical personnel arrived and took him to a hospital, where he died a short time later.
Though not charged in Sanders’ death, Hutcheson now 36, was sentenced last year to six months in federal prison for unrelated crimes: wire fraud and identity theft. He resigned after pleading guilty and can no longer work as a law enforcement officer.
Federal prosecutors said Hutcheson used a fraudulent process to track the whereabouts of more than 200 cellphone users, including a judge and a former sheriff. He never explained his motive.
Hutcheson was elected in 2016. The former deputy ran on a pledge to attack the drug culture that permeated his county. Hutcheson arrested 88 drug dealers in his first 90 days as sheriff, his attorney said at Hutcheson’s sentencing.
But Hutcheson himself was arrested in April 2017, just three months into his term. In addition to the cellphone tracking allegations, he was accused of roughing up a 77-year-old beauty salon owner in a dispute over Hutcheson’s sister-in-law’s paycheck. The woman suffered a heart attack during the encounter but recovered.
The state charges were dropped as part of the federal plea agreement.