A federal judge in Maryland ruled Friday that a lawsuit against three Frederick County sheriff’s deputies will move forward to trial, allowing a jury to decide whether their actions led to the death of a young man with Down syndrome.
In January 2013, Robert Ethan Saylor, 26, went with an aide to watch “Zero Dark Thirty” at a Frederick-area mall and, after refusing to leave the theater during a second showing, was forced from his seat by the deputies who were working off-duty as security officers.
During a struggle, Saylor — who went by his middle name — ended up on the floor and suffered a fractured larynx. His death was later ruled a homicide as a result of asphyxia.
“This case matters on two levels,” Ethan’s mother, Patti Saylor, said Friday. “It matters personally because Ethan’s life matters. He didn’t deserve to die the way he did. And on a greater level, it matters because people with disabilities are part of our community, and first responders and law enforcement need to know and respect their needs.”
The 65-page ruling from U.S. District Judge William M. Nickerson came in response to motions to have the case dismissed filed by the deputies, the state of Maryland and Hill Management Services, which manages the Westview Promenade shopping center where the theater is located. Nickerson determined that there was enough evidence to support claims against all three parties.
“Mr. Saylor was sitting quietly in his seat and there is absolutely nothing in the record to support the conclusion that, if left alone, he would not have remained there until his mother arrived,” he wrote.
Daniel Karp, a Baltimore attorney for the deputies, said Friday that he had not yet read the ruling and could not comment on specifics.
“I think you can anticipate that the defendants are disappointed, but we respect the ruling,” Karp said.
Joseph B. Espo, the attorney for the Saylor family, called the ruling “a critical juncture in the case.”
“We are happy that the case will proceed and that there will be an opportunity for a full airing of the events of the night that Ethan Saylor died,” Espo said. “And we’re happy that a jury will have the opportunity to finally judge the conduct of the sheriff deputies who have so far had no repercussions for their actions.”
The deputies — Lt. Scott Jewell, Sgt. Rich Rochford and Deputy 1st Class James Harris — were cleared of wrongdoing in an internal affairs investigation, and a county grand jury determined that criminal charges were not warranted.
An employee at the theater called the deputies for help after Saylor refused to leave the theater after slipping back in while his aide went to get the car. Before the deputies encountered Saylor, according to the lawsuit, the aide gave warning that he would “freak out” if touched.
A trial date has not been set.