7 California officers charged in death of man in custody

March 29, 2023 GMT
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FILE - In this image taken from a nearly 18-minute video taken by a California Highway Patrol sergeant, Edward Bronstein, 38, is taken into custody by CHP officers on March 31, 2020, following a traffic stop in Los Angeles. Prosecutors on Wednesday, March 29, 2023, charged seven California Highway Patrol officers and a nurse with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the 2020 in-custody death of Edward Bronstein, who screamed "I can't breathe" while multiple officers restrained him as they tried to take a blood sample. (California Highway Patrol via AP, File)
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FILE - In this image taken from a nearly 18-minute video taken by a California Highway Patrol sergeant, Edward Bronstein, 38, is taken into custody by CHP officers on March 31, 2020, following a traffic stop in Los Angeles. Prosecutors on Wednesday, March 29, 2023, charged seven California Highway Patrol officers and a nurse with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the 2020 in-custody death of Edward Bronstein, who screamed "I can't breathe" while multiple officers restrained him as they tried to take a blood sample. (California Highway Patrol via AP, File)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Prosecutors charged seven California Highway Patrol officers and a nurse with involuntary manslaughter on Wednesday in connection with the 2020 death of a man who screamed “I can’t breathe” while multiple officers restrained him as they tried to take a blood sample.

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón announced the charges in the death of Edward Bronstein, which the LA County coroner said was caused by “acute methamphetamine intoxication during restraint by law enforcement.”

“The officers had a legal duty to Mr. Bronstein,” Gascón said during a news conference. “He was in their custody. We believe that they failed their duty and their failure was criminally negligent, causing his death.”

Bronstein, 38, was taken into custody following a traffic stop on suspicion of driving under the influence on March 31, 2020. He died at a CHP station in Altadena, north of downtown Los Angeles, less than two months before George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis as he, too, repeatedly told officers, “I can’t breathe.”

Luis Carrillo, an attorney representing Bronstein’s father, said in an email that his client “is glad that the CHP officers were charged with crimes because the CHP officers took a human life and left a family in grief and sadness.”

A nearly 18-minute video showing the officers’ treatment of Bronstein was released last year following a judge’s order in an ongoing federal lawsuit that the man’s family filed against the officers, alleging excessive force and a violation of civil rights.

Family members have said Bronstein was terrified of needles and believe that’s why he was reluctant to comply with the CHP initially as they tried to take a blood sample.

The video, filmed by the sergeant, shows several officers forcing a handcuffed Bronstein to a mat on the floor as he shouts, “I’ll do it willingly! I’ll do it willingly, I promise!”

He continues screaming as six officers hold him face-down — the lawsuit alleges they put their knees on his back — and pleads for help.

“It’s too late,” one officer replies. “Stop yelling!” another shouts.

“I can’t breathe!” and “I can’t!” Bronstein cries, and an officer responds, “Just relax and stop resisting!”

But Bronstein’s voice gets softer and he then falls silent. While he is unresponsive, the nurse continues to draw blood and the officers keep pinning him down.

After they realize he may not have a pulse and does not appear to be breathing, they slap his face and say, “Edward, wake up.” More than 11 minutes after his last screams, they begin CPR.

Bronstein never regained consciousness and was later pronounced dead.

In a statement, CHP Commissioner Sean Duryee extended condolences to the family and said the agency’s mission is to prioritize all Californians’ safety.

“I am saddened that Mr. Bronstein died while in our custody and care. Any death in custody is a tragedy that we take with upmost seriousness,” Duryee said. “I recognize this case will now move through the court system, and I respect the judicial process.”

The seven CHP agents, who were put on administrative leave Wednesday, were identified as Sgt. Michael Little and Officers Dionisio Fiorella, Dustin Osmanson, Darren Parsons, Diego Romero, Justin Silva and Marciel Terry.

They face one count each of involuntary manslaughter and one felony count of assault under the color of authority. If convicted, they could get up to four years in prison.

It was not immediately clear whether they had lawyers who could speak on their behalf, and the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, the union that represents rank-and-file CHP officers, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The registered nurse, Arbi Baghalian, was also charged with involuntary manslaughter.

“I believe it is outrageous and irresponsible for the DA to charge a Registered Nurse (who was present to take a legal blood draw) with involuntary manslaughter,” said John Kelly, an attorney for Baghalian’s employer, Vital Medical, in a statement. “I am not aware of anyone who has opined that the nurse’s conduct in any way caused or contributed to this unfortunate death.”

An arraignment has not yet been scheduled.

Bronstein’s death prompted the CHP to change its policies to prevent officers “from using techniques or transport methods that involve a substantial risk of positional asphyxia,” the agency said. Additional training was also ordered for uniformed officers.

In September 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law barring police from using certain face-down holds that have led to multiple unintended deaths. The bill was aimed at expanding on the state’s ban on chokeholds in the wake of Floyd’s murder.