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Disagreement on Shoplifting Death

August 10, 2000 GMT

DEARBORN, Mich. (AP) _ A 32-year-old man who died after a scuffle with a Lord & Taylor guard already had a bad heart and died of heart failure, a medical examiner testified.

The findings of Dr. L.J. Dragovic on Wednesday disputed testimony given Tuesday that said Frederick Finley died of asphyxia _ a lack of oxygen. The testimony was part of a preliminary examination for a security guard charged with involuntary manslaughter.

Dennis Richardson, 29, is accused of choking Finley on June 22 after Richardson and other guards confronted him in the parking lot of the Fairlane Town Center. They suspected Finley’s girlfriend’s 11-year-old daughter of stealing. According to police reports, the guards said that Finley threw a punch, was dropped to the ground and put in a choke hold by Richardson.

District Court Judge Virginia Sobotka is expected to decide by the end of the month whether Richardson will stand trial.

Since Finley’s death, activists have staged protests against Lord & Taylor, accusing it of having black security workers scrutinize minority shoppers to avoid the appearance of discrimination or racial profiling. Richardson is black, as was Finley. The company has denied engaging in any form of racial profiling.

Dragovic said that while he didn’t dispute all of Assistant Wayne County Medical Examiner Boguslau Pietak’s findings, he did dispute his conclusion that Finley died of asphyxia.

``Finley died of an acute heart failure triggered by physical confrontation, partial oxygen deprivation and physical restraint,″ Dragovic said.

He said he based his conclusion on Finley’s abnormally large heart and lungs, which were filled with fluid, a sign of the heart failing as a pump. An abnormal heart is capable of less, and the sudden physical confrontation put a strain on it, he testified.

Dragovic also cited testimony by a security guard that when she arrived on the scene, Finley was unconscious but still had a heartbeat and pulse. Dragovic said if he had died of asphyxia, he would have lost his pulse and breathing quickly.

Also Wednesday, Linnea Booth, an investigator at Lord & Taylor, testified about the events that preceded the death. She said she approached Finley’s girlfriend, Carla Sullivan, outside the store and told her she suspected her daughter and sister had been shoplifting.

Booth said that when she asked the three to come back to the security office, Sullivan started ``throwing wild punches at me″ and said, ``I’m going to shoot everybody.″ She said a guard tried to prevent Sullivan’s sister and daughter from getting into their car, and then Finley came over and hit him in the chest.

Under cross-examination, she said she did not include those details in her statement to police.

Booth also said Lord & Taylor guards never identified themselves to Finley.

The defense showed a video from Lord & Taylor surveillance cameras. On the video, Sullivan’s daughter is seen taking a tag off a $25 bracelet and later putting on the bracelet, Booth said. She also testified that Sullivan’s sister had about $200 worth of merchandise she allegedly took from the store.