This post has been updated.
The call came out of nowhere one April day last year: Everett Palmer Jr. was dead.
The 41-year-old father of two had traveled from his home in Delaware to Lancaster County, Pa., to resolve an outstanding DUI warrant from 2016, his family told The Washington Post on Thursday. But days later, his family received a call that he had died at York County Prison on April 9.
An autopsy report from the York County Coroner’s Office states that Palmer had become agitated in his cell, banging his head against his cell door, and was restrained. He was then moved to a hospital, where he was declared dead. But his family still knows little about the events that precipitated his death.
There was “so much mystery and unanswered questions in a way that violates every policy and procedure the state has,” said civil rights attorney Lee Merritt, who is now representing the family.
A year later, Palmer’s family still has questions about what happened and is pursuing both criminal and civil cases.
The Pennsylvania State Police York Station is conducting an investigation in conjunction with the York County district attorney, according to PSP spokesman Brent Miller. Both offices declined to comment, citing the ongoing nature of the case.
Dwayne Palmer said his brother went to Pennsylvania to clear up a DUI warrant from Lancaster County, before traveling to New York to see his sick mother. The York Daily Record reported that Everett Palmer had been involved in a single-vehicle crash on Oct. 28, 2016, and that emergency responders had smelled alcohol on him. A test revealed a blood alcohol content of 0.148, above the legal limit of 0.08. He was flown to York Hospital, the Record reported.
When Everett Palmer arrived in Pennsylvania in 2018 to resolve the DUI, police saw a suspension on his license and he was sent to York County Prison, Dwayne Palmer said.
After that, what happened to Everett Palmer is not clearly known.
According to the York County coroner’s report and autopsy results released in July 2018, Palmer was being held in a single cell at York County Prison on April 9, 2018, when he “became agitated and began hitting his head against the inside of his cell door.” Officers “restrained” Palmer, but after the incident he was taken to the prison’s clinic and was “noted to be unresponsive.”
Staff tried to resuscitate Palmer, and he was transferred to York Hospital, where he was pronounced dead at 5:46 a.m.
The coroner’s office ruled his official cause of death as “complication following an excited state, associated with methamphetamine toxicity, during physical restraint.” A sickle-cell disorder was said to be a probable contributing factor. The manner of death was undetermined.
The autopsy was conducted by an independent firm called Forensic Pathology Associates that is contracted with the county, York County Coroner Pamela L. Gay told The Washington Post on Saturday.
Gay said that Palmer was banging his head in his cell before his death and that the result for methamphetamine toxicity would appear if there was “methamphetamine in their system that was sufficient enough that it could have contributed to the death.” She said the question of how he could have obtained such a substance in custody was under investigation.
Lee Merritt, the Palmer family lawyer, told the Washington Post that the family had been shocked to receive Everett Palmer’s body with his heart, brain and throat missing, and that it was not immediately communicated to them where the body parts were. The family’s distress over the missing body parts was detailed in a NY1 investigation into Palmer’s death and reiterated to The Post.
The family hired an independent pathologist, who first flagged the missing organs and later said the manner of death should be considered a homicide, Merritt said. Merritt claimed that the coroner’s office initially denied removing the organs before later acknowledging they had done so and only several months later did they say that a “private company” had them.
Gay disputes that timeline in a statement issued Friday in which she asserted her office had cooperated with the family and their lawyer at the time and the body parts were located. She told The Post that, as a part of the autopsy, Palmer’s brain, heart and throat were removed and remained with by Forensic Pathology Associates for testing. She said that it was not uncommon for those organs to be removed and kept by a lab, and the body parts remained with FPA because the investigation was still underway.
She said her office did not know Forensic Pathology Associates had retained some of Palmer’s body parts until the family’s lawyer at the time made contact, and Gay says she confirmed that FPA had them a few days later.
“We’re gonna get answers to what led to his death, and we do that with everybody," Gay said. “We’re going to do this the right way.”
Still, the coroner’s report leaves questions unanswered: specifically, how Everett Palmer died suddenly after a brief stay in York County Prison.
Rose Palmer, Everett’s mother, told NY1 that the behavior described in the coroner’s report was out of character.
“My son was a perfectly healthy young man, and my son is not going to bang his head on a cell,” she said. “My son was not a troublemaker, not at all, he was a very gentle, kind man."
Dwayne Palmer told The Post that Everett was a personal trainer in excellent health, and that while the family were carriers for sickle-cell anemia, his brother did not have it.
Merritt said the Palmer family had met with the York County district attorney and that prosecutors were considering a grand jury investigation into the death.
In recent years, police and law enforcement have come under increased scrutiny for deaths of African Americans during police stops, arrests, or while in jail. In one of the most high-profile cases, a Texas woman named Sandra Bland died in a jail cell in 2015 and her death was classified as suicide. She had been arrested during a traffic stop that became confrontational, and video showed an officer threatening her with a Taser and saying he would “light you up.” Three days later, she was dead. Her death in custody sparked nationwide outrage and protest, and her family was still demanding answers as recently as last month after new video of her traffic stop emerged.
Now, it is Palmer’s loved ones who are seeking an explanation. Dwayne Palmer said the family held protests along with congregants from their church last July outside the York County courthouse in order to demand the release of their brother’s full autopsy results, which were issued on July 28, 2018. They are hoping that renewed attention to the case will prompt witnesses to come forward.
They have also started a Justice4Everett Facebook page and hashtag, and hold updates at their church in New York City. But the “tight-knit family” still feels far from a resolution for Everett, who loved sports and had an eclectic taste in music, according to his brother.
“My brother was a good man, he comes from a good family, if he did something wrong with regards to the DUI then clearly he should be held accountable for that," Dwayne Palmer said. “But that should not be a death sentence.”