The FBI said yesterday that it has opened a criminal civil-rights investigation into the death of a Suitland man who passed out in a holding cell Wednesday shortly after he was arrested for fighting with Prince George's County police officers.
The case is the fifth FBI investigation into possible civil-rights violations committed by Prince George's law enforcement officers this year.
Peter A. Gulotta Jr., an FBI spokesman in Baltimore, said agents began a probe into the death of Elmer Clayton Newman, 29, of the 4400 block of Rena Road, after receiving a formal complaint yesterday. He declined to give details, but he said the findings of the investigation will be turned over to Justice Department officials, who will decide whether to prosecute.
Newman is the fifth person since April to die while in the custody of Prince George's police or while struggling with county officers.
According to police, Newman called 911 at 2:18 a.m. Wednesday to report a break-in at his apartment off Forestville Drive in Suitland. When two officers arrived at the scene, Newman's girlfriend told them there had been no break-in and that Newman had damaged the apartment, police said.
Police said Newman became belligerent and attacked the officers with his fists. The officers tried to subdue him with pepper spray, and when that didn't work, they tackled him, said police spokesman Royce D. Holloway.
The police arrested Newman on charges of assaulting an officer and took him to the Oxon Hill District station, where they placed him in a holding cell.
Police said Wednesday that they kept Newman handcuffed while he remained alone in the cell because he continued to resist and thrash around, banging his head against the concrete walls and cursing.
Holloway said officers then called paramedics because they were worried about Newman's health. When the paramedics arrived, however, Newman suddenly went limp, police said. The paramedics took him to Fort Washington Hospital, where he was pronounced dead about 4 a.m., police said.
Newman sustained "contusions" to his wrists when officers handcuffed him but did not have any other visible injuries, Holloway said. "We don't have anything to indicate there was anything done that was improper," he said.
Holloway said that a female witness in Newman's apartment told officers that he "smoked crack on a regular basis" and that he was hallucinating when he called 911.
Newman's body was taken to the Maryland chief medical examiner's office in Baltimore for an autopsy and toxicology tests. Results were pending yesterday.
Christopher A. Griffiths, an attorney for Newman's relatives, said they are still trying to piece together what happened. He added, however, that witnesses saw police strike Newman with a baton at his apartment as they tried to subdue him as well as after he was handcuffed.
Of the four other people who died after struggling with Prince George's police this year, two died of gunshot wounds and two suffered heart attacks.
Holloway said yesterday that a county grand jury and an internal police investigation had cleared the officers involved in the arrests of the two heart-attack victims. He said the fatal shootings remain under investigation.
Staff writer Ruben Castaneda contributed to this report.