Disabled Americans Deserve Special Handling Under the Law

by Diane Dimond on September 2, 2013

Ethan During Happy Family Times

Ethan Saylor wasn’t like you and me.

He was born 26 years ago with Down syndrome. He was a happy, loving, “goofy” brother to younger siblings Emma and Adam. His parents adored him. At one point, Ethan had moved out to live independently but he had recently moved back to an apartment on his parent’s property.

By now you’ve noticed I speak of Ethan in the past tense. Sadly, he died in a confrontation with law enforcement officers who apparently had little training in how to deal with people who suffer from disabilities that make them unable to comprehend, feel or react as the rest of us do.

The officers – members of the Frederick County, Maryland Sheriffs Department — were moonlighting as security cops at a Maryland mall at the time of the fatal confrontation. They had no way of knowing that Ethan was captivated by police, loved the TV program NCIS and would sometimes call 911 just to ask questions. They also didn’t know that Ethan, who was famous for his big hugs, had an aversion to being touched by strangers.

Ethan Loved Action Movies

On January 12, 2013 Ethan went to the movies to see “Zero Dark Thirty.” He enjoyed the film so much he wanted to see it again and his 18-year-old aide could not convince him otherwise. In fact, she called home to Ethan’s mother to tell her that he had become frustrated and upset at the prospect of having to leave.

In the interim, Ethan wandered back into the theater and settled in to see the movie again. He either didn’t realize or didn’t stop to think that he needed to buy another $12 ticket and, in any case, he had no more money in his pocket. An assistant manager called mall security to eject Ethan.

According to witnesses, when the first plain clothes officer told him he had to leave Ethan stubbornly replied, “I’m not leaving.” (If they had only been wearing a uniform and a badge the young man who was so fascinated by police might have reacted differently) The aide urgently told the security guards that  Ethan required time to process the situation and begged for their patience. She warned them about his phobia of being touched and specifically said Ethan would “freak out” if they forced the situation. Her warnings went unheeded.

As patrons began to fill the theater for the next showing the officers may have felt pressure to quickly resolve the issue.

Ethan Stood 5′ 6″ and Weighed Near 300#s

Now let’s pause a moment here to describe the man officers were speaking to.

Ethan was 5-foot-6 and weighed 294 pounds. One glance at the young man would immediately communicate that he was disabled. A chromosomal disorder had left Ethan with widely recognized Down syndrome characteristics: Eyes that slanted upward, small ears, a large forehead and a thick-tonged speech pattern.

Eyewitness statements say as the officers tried to pull Ethan out of his chair he both verbally and physically resisted. During the ensuing wrestling match the officers struggled with three sets of handcuffs (made necessary due to Ethan’s short arms and girth) and told him he was going to jail.

One witness said Ethan was crying and calling out for his Mom, clearly unable to process what was happening. As the scrum scuffled toward the exit they fell in a heap with Ethan at the bottom – face down.

Ethan’s sister Emma would write about the incident on-line. “Ethan died from a crushed larynx. He stopped breathing and went into cardiac arrest. In just a few moments he was dead.”  In a Facebook message to me Emma, asked and answers her own question. “His crime? Not buying a $12 movie ticket.”

Ethan With Baby Sister, Emma

The official autopsy report ruled the cause of death was, “Asphyxia … complicated by Down Syndrome, obesity, atherosclerotic disease and some cardiac abnormalities.” I forgot to mention that having heart problems is another characteristic plaguing those with Down Syndrome.

The medical examiner’s office determined the manner of death was homicide. Homicide – so you’d think charges would be filed, right? No. The Sheriff’s office conducted an internal investigation and found its deputies – including a Sargent and a Lieutenant – had done nothing wrong. Prosecutors took the case to a Grand Jury which heard from 17 witnesses. No indictment was issued.

Sister Emma, who happens to work for the National Down Syndrome Society, started an on-line petition at Change.org calling for Maryland’s Governor and Attorney General to re-open her brother’s case. The petition asks that the deputy’s behavior be re-examined by outside investigators because as Emma bluntly observed, “They investigated and cleared themselves of any wrongdoing.”

DOJ Could Invoke Disability Act

Emma’s employer asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Ethan’s rights were violated under the Americans With Disabilities Act. According to ABC News a DOJ official confirms they are “reviewing” the case.

The most important point for other families with specially challenged children? The Saylor petition also calls for more training so deputies understand that a person like Ethan isn’t capable of responding automatically and should not be treated like a usual suspect. At last check that petition had been signed by more than 300,000 people. A testament to how many families struggle with physically and emotionally disabled loved ones.

Look, no one thinks the officers deliberately set out to do harm to Ethan that day. But the fact remains he died because of their actions. Ethan had the bad luck to be born with an extra chromosome but that doesn’t mean he forfeited his rights as an American to respectful due process.

The justice system already gives special treatment to those who are targeted by hate crimes or those with alternative lifestyles. Now it’s time to give disabled Americans some sensitive understanding too.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane Dimond September 2, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Twitter Pal wstafrican writes:

“@DiDimond it’s a very tragic story. really so preventable.”

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Diane Dimond September 2, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Twitter pal sherri_sgh49ers writes:

“@DiDimond That is terrible and sad”

Reply

Diane Dimond September 2, 2013 at 1:05 pm

Twitter Pal porcelain10 writes:

“@DiDimond oh yes,I read about this, MayB 40 yrs ago I could understand this,but now in 2013? // all for a $12 dollar movie ticket?”

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Diane Dimond September 2, 2013 at 1:06 pm

Twitter pal sandylkoch writes:

“@DiDimond Oh my, That is so sad. :( Should not have happened.”

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Diane Dimond September 2, 2013 at 1:24 pm

Facebook Friend Stacy Brown writes:

“Stacy Brown mentioned you in a comment.

“One of the saddest stories you’ll read. This tragedy was so avoidable, as Diane Dimond appropriately writes: (If they had only been wearing a uniform and a badge the young man who was so fascinated by police might have reacted differently). I’m not a person who gets emotional to the point of tears, but this one does bring a tear.”

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Diane Dimond September 2, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Twitter pal TalknComonSense writes:

“@DiDimond Not going to side w/had they worn a uniform it could have been different, it was obvious to observe and confirm he was special. //After confirmed of his condition it all came down to reckless judgement at the very least on behalf professional authority.”// Didn’t understand or acted recklessly due to lack of compassion? I wasn’t aware of this story till today, it disturbed me to read.”

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Diane Dimond September 3, 2013 at 11:22 am

Facebook Friend elizabeth kelleywrites (Criminal Defense Lawyer, Legal Commentator, Host of “AuthorChats” and “CelebrityCourt”) wrote:

“Very sad piece — Thankfully, law enforcement throughout the country are undergoing CIT (Crisis Intervention Training), but often, it only happens after a tragedy like this –”

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Diane Dimond September 3, 2013 at 11:39 am

Twitter Pal undercoverpinch writes:

“@DiDimond This is a very hard story to read cause I have a daughter with down syndrome and she’s love the movies .. Have some compassion !!!”

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Diane Dimond September 3, 2013 at 11:40 am

Twitter Pal Bradygurl writes:

” @DiDimond omg!!! Tears in my eyes reading this! Is there a way to sign the petition online?”

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Diane Dimond September 3, 2013 at 11:42 am

Yes! Bradygurl -You’ve made me realize I forgot to include the ALL links for this column! Oops. I will double back and do that. In the meantime here’s the link for the petition:

https://www.change.org/petitions/justice-for-ethan-governor-martin-o-malley-we-need-an-independent-investigation-and-training-for-police?alert_id=rwTJzWGHBa_lFQTQBgUEd&utm_campaign=31925&utm_medium=email&utm_source=action_alert

Thanks so much for caring. ~DD

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Diane Dimond September 3, 2013 at 11:46 am

Twitter Pal Beinhonest51 writes:

” @DiDimond doesn’t take rocket scien 2 see upon approach Ethan, you might think,”ok we need 2 B CONSIDERATE!”

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Diane Dimond September 3, 2013 at 11:46 am

Twitter Pal don_peck writes:

“@DiDimond We call this good will! Who does not recognize Down Syndrome? This is hard to believe!”

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Diane Dimond September 3, 2013 at 11:48 am

Twitter Pal atMelchionno writes:

” @DiDimond that article made me really mad and really sad.”

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Diane Dimond September 3, 2013 at 11:49 am

Twitter Pal rmadsen54 writes:

“@DiDimond no how sad……what is wrong with people. No compassion, no empathy, no common sense & no morality.”

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Diane Dimond September 3, 2013 at 11:49 am

Twitter Pal SAmatulla writes:

“@DiDimond It’s becoming more and more a trend that a person’s life is not worth anything. For shame!”

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Diane Dimond September 3, 2013 at 11:54 am

Facebook Friend Michael Houbrick writes:

” In a perfect world, they should be charged with 2nd degree homicide. In the least, the officers involved should be charged with excessive force and manslaughter.”

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Diane Dimond September 3, 2013 at 11:55 am

Facebook Friend Pat Melchionno writes:

“DD this article made me so mad and so sad. I don’t know what the answer is. Seems the cops were investigated more than once and they found nothing? I find that hard to believe considering based on Ethan’s physical description that had to know he was disabled, they couldn’t find a kinder, better way to resolve it or better yet, give the movie show $12 so he could see it again?”

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Diane Dimond September 3, 2013 at 11:57 am

- Pat, At the very least I think I would have gone back to the assistant manager of the movie theater and said, “Look. This kid is special. His aide says if we just back off she can convince him to leave soon. Let’s give it some time.” I think I also would have asked the aide for Ethan’s parents phone number and called them to come assist in his removal – or payment of another ticket.
(Ironically, the aide HAD already called Ethan’s Mom and she was on the way – a fact I didn’t have space enough to mention…She never saw her son alive again.)

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Diane Dimond September 3, 2013 at 5:59 pm

Linked In Connection Rebecca Mennell (of Sheffield Hallam University) writes:

“What a disgrace. We definitely need to encourage journalists globally to write about such deaths and hate crimes. It seems to me as though now racism is being dealt with, disabled people are the next ‘easy targets’. I long to write professionally about the attacks on disabled people and, in doing so, increase awareness.”

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Diane Dimond September 16, 2013 at 12:21 pm

Reader Norman Alpert,

“Dear Diane,

Your article on Ethan Saylor was one of the saddest things I’ve ever read. You captured the tone perfectly.

Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

Yours truly,
Norman Alpert

Reply

Diane Dimond September 22, 2013 at 1:22 pm

ABQ Journal Reader Kris Wellborn Reichert writes:

“Dear Ms Dimond,

I really enjoyed and appreciated your article “Don’t treat disabled people like usual suspects.” You were so right on many accounts. I was like, “right on and yes there needs to be more education”, but then I came to your closing statements and saw that you need a little education as well. It is NOT bad luck to be born with an extra chromosome. It is a gift. A different gift that most people will never have nor understand. Your article was outstanding but this one comment ruined it. I am truly sorry.

Kris R.

A proud momma to a little boy with Down Syndrome”

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Diane Dimond October 9, 2013 at 9:12 pm

Linked In Reader Louise Miller writes:

“Sometimes bringing attention to the disabled victims may increase the vulnerability to others who are disabled. However, I do believe we do not give enough attention to the disabled when it comes to their societal struggles. A deaf/mute father who is raising a deaf child on his own in a hearing/speaking neighborhood. A deaf father helping raise his child with CDLS, who does not speak, along with a normal child. Then there are the invisible disabilities, mental health issues, chronic heart and lung issues, the spectrum goes on and on. Many choices for the news media to focus on one at a time. Too much focus on
politics and not enough on everyday people.”

Reply

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