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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.