Activists seek special prosecutor in teen’s custody death
A coalition of community groups demanded Monday that a special prosecutor be appointed in the case of a Black youth who died following a physical struggle with staff at a Kansas juvenile center.
In a Wichita rally and letter to local officials, community activists also called for the release of video and the names of the individuals involved in the death of 17-year-old Cedric Lofton. It comes after an autopsy report released last week contradicted an earlier, preliminary finding that the teenager hadn’t suffered life-threatening injuries. The autopsy ruled the death a homicide.
The report said that the teen’s heart and breathing stopped after he was handcuffed while lying on his stomach. Lofton had briefly been in the custody of the Sedgwick County Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center in Wichita when his altercation with staff members occurred Sept. 24. He was taken to a local hospital and died two days later.
The letter cited what it called false and misleading statements made at an initial press conference by Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett and Sheriff Jeff Easter implying the death was not the responsibility of law enforcement. It also cited Bennett’s history of not charging law enforcement officers.
Activists calling themselves the Community Empowerment & Resilience Coalition wrote that “our community does not have any faith or trust in the independence” of Bennett. The letter was signed by Lofton’s family and more than two dozen other community groups and people. It seeks a reply by Jan. 10.
Dan Dillon, the spokesman for Bennett’s office, said in an email Monday that there is no basis under Kansas law for the office of the district attorney to pursue a recusal. He said Bennett anticipates completing his review of the death within 15 days and the public will be notified at that time. No further comment will be made until that review is complete, he said.
The spokesman for the sheriff’s office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
“Today’s unprecedented community action in Wichita and peaceful rally at the Sedgwick County Building consisted of a diverse coalition of community leaders and organizations committed to fighting for justice for Cedric,” said Andrew M. Stroth, a civil rights attorney who is representing the family.
Bennett said last week that an autopsy’s finding that the death was a homicide doesn’t necessarily mean the employees committed any crimes. The designation only means that someone committed an intentional act that led to the death of another person. Whether criminal charges can be brought is a separate, legal determination.
Lofton’s family and an attorney have had a private showing of the videos involving the law enforcement encounter with the teen, but they do not have copies of the video and are urging its public release. The video shows officers on top of the teen at various times, Stroth said.
“The injuries in the autopsy report are consistent with the video that shows the officers using excessive force,” Stroth said. “The officers took Cedric’s breath away. Cedric Lofton could not breathe.”