O’FALLON, Mo. (AP) — Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt announced Friday that no charges will be filed in the 2017 death of Tory Sanders, a Black inmate at a rural jail who died under similar circumstances to George Floyd — after a white law enforcement officer’s knee was pressed on his neck.
Schmitt, a Republican, said in a news release that there is not enough evidence to prove first- or second-degree murder, which are the only options because the statute of limitations has expired on other potential charges, such as manslaughter. The statute of limitations for manslaughter in Missouri is three years.
“The death of Tory Sanders is tragic and heartbreaking, particularly for his family and his loved ones, and my heart goes out to them,” Schmitt said in the statement.
Sanders’ mother, Quinta Sanders, said by phone from Nashville, Tennessee, on Friday that her son was murdered and accused Schmitt of not having the courage to file murder charges.
Schmitt’s predecessor, Josh Hawley, also investigated Sanders’ death but declined to file charges.
The Missouri NAACP and Black lawmakers last year pushed for Schmitt to investigate and called for murder charges against former Sheriff Cory Hutcheson and other officers.
The 28-year-old Sanders died at the Mississippi County Jail in Charleston, about 150 miles (240 kilometers) south of St. Louis in May 2017.
Sanders had several encounters with officers while jailed and a mental health counselor determined he was suffering from paranoia. Hutcheson and eight others subdued 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.
Medical experts concluded that Sanders died of “excited delirium,” not from the knee to the neck or other efforts to control him.
“My son did not die of excited delirium,” Quinta Sanders said. “He was murdered and the AG doesn’t have the guts to press charges. They don’t want to do what’s right.”
Floyd’s death on May 25 in Minneapolis sparked nationwide protests. Derek Chauvin was charged with second-degree murder after bystander video showed him pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck, even as the man pleaded for air and eventually stopped moving.
The Rev. Darryl Gray, a St. Louis civil rights activist, said Schmitt’s decision was disappointing but not surprising.
“For Black people in Missouri, the truth is that we did not expect justice,” Gray said. “And we’re not seeing anything legislatively or policy-wise that gives us any assurance that there is justice for people of color versus law enforcement under any circumstances.”
Sanders’ mother agreed, saying that if a white man had been killed in similar circumstances by Black officers “you know those officers would have been taken out in handcuffs.”
Sanders, also of Nashville, 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 Sanders 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 allegedly responded.
Sanders died at a hospital a short time later.
His mother said officers in the jail should have forced Hutcheson to remove his knee, rather than just asking him to do so. She also alleged that video on one of two cameras trained on her son’s jail cell was deleted later and said the family is trying to determine what that camera recorded.
Though not charged in Sanders’ death, Hutcheson was sentenced in 2019 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 in 2017 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.
He also 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.
Sanders’ death was cited in July 2017 when the state NAACP issued a Missouri “travel advisory” over concerns about whether civil rights would be respected for those traveling through the state. The resolution also cited legislative action such as the passage of a bill that weakened the state’s anti-discrimination law.