Pepper-sprayed homeless man dies: ACLU to investigate Miami, FL

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Tue, 8 Jun 1999 22:38:53 -0700 (PDT)


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FWD  Published Tuesday, June 8, 1999, in the Miami Herald

     ACLU: HOMELESS MAN'S DEATH IN POLICE CUSTODY SUSPICIOUS

     By FRANCES ROBLES
     Herald Staff Writer

The ACLU in Miami has voted to launch a preliminary investigation into the
case of a homeless man who died last month at Miami police headquarters
after a public scuffle with officers who doused him with pepper spray.

Police say Lewis Rivera, 40, who died May 12, became unruly and aggressive
while talking to a patrolman, causing officers to spray him with pepper
spray as several others tried to subdue him.

Some witnesses -- not all -- said officers were unnecessarily pushing
Rivera around.

Forty minutes after being hauled away from the NationsBank Tower in leg and
arm restraints, Rivera was found dead on the floor of his cell. Absent any
clear cause of death or signs of a beating, doctors are leaning toward
declaring that Rivera died of alcohol withdrawal.

``There are very few things as disturbing as the death of an individual in
the custody of the police,'' said John de Leon, president of the ACLU here.
``If there's a scenario of him dying as a result of mistreatment, then we
have a responsibility to further investigate, make people aware, and people
should be held accountable. But we don't know.''

De Leon said the ACLU would contact Miami Police Chief William O'Brien to
find out where the investigation stands. Further action would depend on
what the group gleans from its own investigation, de Leon said.

``I don't have a problem with them looking into it, but I do think it's
premature,'' said Assistant Police Chief John Brooks. ``We need to give the
medical examiner time and opportunity to complete their investigation.''

Brooks stressed that doctors have found nothing that would indicate police
abuse.

Miami-Dade Associate Medical Examiner Bruce Hyma said he still has found no
definitive cause of death, but is leaning toward alcohol withdrawal even
though Rivera's body did not show any telltale signs of alcoholism. Chief
Medical Examiner Roger Mittleman said that theory is based on statements
from witnesses who told police they had more than once seen Rivera drinking
beer.

When he died, Rivera had about half a beer's worth of liquor in his system.
He suffered from Hepatitis C, but that did not kill him, Hyma said.

``There is no other good explanation we can conceive of,'' Mittleman said.
``Alcohol seems to be playing a large factor.''

Hyma is also studying the ingredients of the pepper spray Rivera was
sprayed with, but Hyma stressed that he does not think the spray
contributed to his death because Rivera was ``walking and talking'' just
before he died.

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