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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Amid Online Furor, Sheriff Responds to Death of Man With Down Syndrome

WJLA-TV’s coverage of the Robert E. Saylor case in Maryland.

Online furor over the death of a 26-year old Maryland man with Down syndrome, who was handcuffed and forced to the ground by sheriff’s deputies in a movie theater, has been so vigorous that a local sheriff took the unusual step this week of posting a statement on social media to try to reassure the public that his office was handling the matter responsibly.

On Jan. 12, the man, Robert E. Saylor, went with his caregiver to a Frederick County movie theater to watch “Zero Dark Thirty.” After the movie was over, the caregiver went to retrieve her car and Mr. Saylor waited in a seat in the theater, said Joseph B. Espo, a lawyer for his parents.

At about 11 p.m., an employee asked for help when Mr. Saylor refused to leave, and three deputies, wh were moonlighting as security personnel, responded, a sheriff’s office statement said. Mr. Saylor was handcuffed and “brought to the ground,” Mr. Espo said, quoting language that he said the sheriff’s office used when informing him of what happened.

The deputies had to string three sets of handcuffs together to restrain Mr. Saylor, who was short but had a large physique, with his hands behind his back, Mr. Espo said. He then suffered a “medical emergency,” according to the statement from the sheriff’s office in January, and the officers removed the handcuffs. Mr. Saylor was pronounced dead at the hospital.

The cause of death last week was ruled a homicide by asphyxiation, said J. Charles Smith, the Frederick County state attorney, whose office received the case on Wednesday to decide whether there should be criminal charges.

But Mr. Saylor’s death touched off a wave of online criticism. The sheriff’s Facebook page has been inundated, with several thousand comments, some calling the deputies “murderers” and “bullies,” and questioning why the deputies were allowed to stay in their jobs.

On Monday, the couny sheriff, Charles A. Jenkins, expressed his “very serious concerns for the messages posted by the public on Facebook and other social media sites” and responded in a letter on Facebook and Twitter.

Excerpts from his statement, dated Feb. 18, said:

First, I do understand the negative outcry and frustration by those who have expressed their concerns about the death of Mr. Robert Saylor. The death of Mr. Saylor was very tragic and I want to! assure e! veryone that a thorough investigation is being conducted.

Please allow myself and this agency the opportunity to complete the investigations necessary to collect all of the facts regarding this matter, before judgment is passed on the involved deputies or the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office. Again, as I have expressed to them directly, I extend my sincere condolences to the entire family of Mr. Robert Saylor for their loss.

The officers were later put on administrative leave, the sheriff said on Monday. They had been working secondary jobs for Hill Management at the Westview Promenade where the cinema is located, the January statement from his office said.

The e-mails and phone calls from the public got so bad that the mayor of Frederick, Randy McClement, posted a message on the city’s Web site saying the city’s police were not involved. Mr. McClement said the incident also id not take place in Frederick itself; the cinema is near a highway in an area that falls under county jurisdiction, rather than municipal, and therefore involves the sheriff’s office.

Reaction took hold on Twitter, with some recalling other criticisms of police misconduct or their interactions with people with disabilities.

In its coverage of the case, ABC’s WJLA-TV interviewed Mr. Saylor’s mother, Pattie, after her son’s death last month. “He has never had anybody put their hands on him before in his life,” she sai..

Follow Christine Hauser on Twitter @christineNYT.