The investigation into the death of a 16-year-old retarded boy from Manassas will go to a local grand jury Thursday, as prosecutors consider whether manslaughter charges should be brought against two juvenile correctional officers involved in his asphyxiation in April.
Prosecutors say they plan to bring about 10 witnesses before the grand jury to testify about the night of April 7, when authorities said Wallace Dandridge provoked a fatal confrontation from within his cell at Oak Ridge Juvenile Correctional Center in suburban Richmond. The seven officers who restrained Dandridge were suspended by the Department of Juvenile Justice in May. All but two returned to work on Aug. 6.
The state medical examiner's office said Dandridge died from heart arrhythmia caused by acute asphyxia but ruled his death an accident. He was found unresponsive while lying face down on a metal bunk with his hands restrained at his sides after a confrontation with the officers, authorities said.
Prosecutors in Chesterfield County, home to the state facility, have ruled out murder charges but are considering whether to seek manslaughter charges against two supervisory officers, said Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Learned Barry. He would not name the two officers under investigation.
Barry said a criminal charge would require evidence of "willful and wanton conduct."
"That's a tough standard," he said. "That means that we have to put together evidence showing that these two guards intended to do this kid some harm."
The grand jury meeting Thursday is on a fact-finding mission, Barry said. A separate grand jury will determine Sept. 20 whether to indict the two officers.
Priscilla R. Budeiri of the Virginia Poverty Law Center in Richmond, one of several local advocates pushing for answers about Dandridge's death, applauded Barry's decision to bring the case before grand juries.
"The grand jury will hopefully move us closer to learning exactly why Wallace [Dandridge] died and what needs to be done to prevent the death of another child," Budeiri said.
The Department of Juvenile Justice declined to comment today on prosecutors' actions.
Dandridge, 5 feet 10 and 170 pounds, was a turbulent boy known for outbursts against fellow youths and the adult officers charged with controlling him.
Authorities say problems began the night of April 7 when Dandridge covered the small window in the door of his 10-by-7-foot cell so officers could not see inside. When an officer came in to remove the paper, Dandridge reportedly threw a liquid he claimed was urine at the officer. He punched a second officer, authorities said, starting a struggle that resulted in the seven officers subduing him.
The officers called Virginia state police at 11:42 to report the incident and were to check on him every five minutes by peering into the cell. When a state trooper arrived shortly after midnight to charge Dandridge with assaulting the officers, he was unresponsive. Doctors at a local hospital pronounced him dead on the morning of April 8.