After accusations of cover-up, grand jury set up to look into death of US Black man Daniel Prude

Grand jury to investigate Mr Daniel Prude's death while in police custody.
Grand jury to investigate Mr Daniel Prude's death while in police custody.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - New York's attorney-general announced on Saturday (Sept 5) that she would set up a grand jury to consider evidence in the death of a Black man in Rochester, New York, who suffocated after he had been placed in a hood by police officers and pinned to the ground.

The unusual weekend announcement by Attorney-General Letitia James signalled a significant ramping up of the response to the March 23 arrest of Mr Daniel Prude, 41, after months of official silence. Mr Prude's family in recent days has accused local and state officials of covering up his death to protect the police officers involved.

Mr Prude went into cardiac arrest during a struggle with officers and died a week later. The county medical examiner labelled his death a homicide caused by complications of asphyxiation in a prone position. But for months, the police in Rochester treated the case as a drug overdose after PCP, or angel dust, was found in his bloodstream.

"The Prude family and the Rochester community have been through great pain and anguish," Ms James said in a statement on Saturday. "My office will immediately move to empower a grand jury as part of our exhaustive investigation into this matter."

Her office became aware of Mr Prude's death in mid-April with the release of the autopsy's findings, but made no public mention of the case until this week, even as protests erupted nationwide over the mistreatment and brutality directed at Black people by the police.

The case came to public attention only last Wednesday, more than five months after Mr Prude's death, when his family's lawyer released body camera footage from the officers involved in detaining Mr Prude. The footage was obtained through a public records request by the lawyer.

Mr Prude's brother, Mr Joe Prude, had accused local authorities this week of failing to investigate the case in order to protect the police. On Saturday night, Mr Joe Prude said he was pleased by the attorney-general's announcement.

"I am ecstatic about this, but right now I'm still waiting on seeing the indictment and them being prosecuted to the full extent of the law," Mr Prude said.

Governor Andrew Cuomo said he supported the decision to set up a grand jury.

"Justice delayed is justice denied and the people of New York deserve the truth," Mr Cuomo said in a statement.

The Rochester police chief has denied that the department covered up Mr Prude's death. The seven officers found to be involved in the encounter with Mr Prude were suspended this week after the release of the videos.

Protesters have taken to the streets of Rochester every night since the release of the body camera footage, and last Friday night, what began as a peaceful rally took a violent turn.

Protesters marching past restaurants overturned tables and threw furniture and bottles as diners scattered. Police officers in riot gear responded with pepper spray and orders to disperse.

Soon after, two cars drove into a crowd of demonstrators, knocking at least two people to the ground. In videos shared on Twitter, the driver of at least one car can be seen spraying demonstrators with an irritant and racing away.

Mr Daniel Prude, who is from Chicago, arrived at his brother's home in Rochester on March 22, behaving erratically and seemed to be hallucinating. His brother had him hospitalised for an evaluation, but Mr Daniel Prude was sent home hours later.

Early on the morning of March 23, Mr Daniel Prude bolted from his brother's house, and was found naked in the street shortly after 3am.

A group of police officers arrived and handcuffed him without incident, but when Mr Prude began spitting in the street - as coronavirus cases were rising sharply throughout the state - officers placed a hood over his head.

Mr Prude became agitated and tried to rise, according to video from the officers' body cameras. The officers pinned him to the ground, one holding his head to the pavement.

Mr Prude pleaded to be let up, but seemed to struggle for breath, and his words turned to gurgles, then stopped, according to footage from the officers' cameras. When paramedics arrived about two minutes after he had been pinned, he had no heartbeat.

They revived him and took him to a hospital, where he later died.

Hours after the encounter with officers, Rochester police chief La'Ron Singletary told Ms Lovely Warren, the mayor of Rochester, that a man in custody had suffered a drug overdose, Ms Warren said this week.

That police narrative essentially held for months, even as Attorney-General James' office began an investigation. Her office did not announce its involvement in the matter and, according to Rochester officials, told them to keep quiet as well.

On June 4, a top official in Ms James' office asked city officials not to release body camera footage so as not to "interfere with the attorney-general's ongoing investigation", Mayor Warren's office said this week.

Ms James' office has denied that characterisation of events.

"There was never a request from the attorney-general's office to the City of Rochester corporation counsel to withhold information about the events surrounding the death of Daniel Prude, plain and simple," Ms James' office said in a statement.

Ms James' office has also said it does not routinely comment on investigations into deaths in police custody until they are concluded.

The office shared footage from the body cameras with a lawyer for the Prude family in June and with family members on July 21.

Ms Warren, Rochester's mayor, said she welcomed the grand jury announcement.

"I thank Attorney-General James for taking this action because it is a trying time in Rochester," she said in a statement. She asked the community to allow the attorney-general's "process to go forth on behalf of the Prude family".