A plastic bag, designed to be impermeable and to prevent any (potentially toxic) air from getting inside the bag and then to the lungs, was yanked roughly over his head.
He couldn’t get the bag off, or tear it open, or even make a little opening to let some air in, because his ankles were bound and his hands were bound behind his back, and he was shackled where he was seated. He said over and over, “I can’t breathe”, and he begged for help. He was terrified, he struggled, and he desperately needed help to live. But no help came. He lost consciousness. And then he died, not old enough to count yet as an adult, in the back seat of a Mequon police car.
The Coroner officially declared the cause of death was asphyxia. That sounds right. The Coroner also declared it was an accident. That doesn’t sound right. It’s not an ‘accident’ when a person, bound hand and foot, with a plastic bag secured over his head, dies due to lack of oxygen. You fall off a ladder, that’s probably an accident. You skid on a patch of black ice, that’s an accident. You die for lack of air with your hands and feet bound and an airtight bag pulled over your head, that’s not an accident. That’s a homicide, and the Coroner should leave the work of determining the nature of the homicide to a jury of citizens, as the law provides.
The Coroner also saw fit to officially declare that the airtight bag was placed over the victim’s head because he was spitting. Was there physical evidence of this that the Coroner collected at the scene? Or was this speculation? Was the Coroner simply repeating without independent examination what he was told by someone? Was Matthew just trying to clear his mouth and lips of the dirt on the side of the road his face had just moments earlier been shoved into? Was the bag put over the head of the deceased victim just to silence him? Was it an emulation of the video images of the abuse of ‘detainees’ raked off the streets and out of the homes in Iraq? Was it an excessive, unnecessary use of force? Why not do an unbiased, objective official investigation and report?
Of course, it’s not particularly relevant whether he did or did not spit, since spitting, while sometimes rashly employed as an expression of frustration and contempt for an injustice, and considered obnoxious by polite society, is not an offense that is legally punishable by on-the-spot summary execution. Not even under the cruel archaic code of Leviticus. Come to think of it, riding with friends who are DWB (driving while black) is not a legitimate excuse for stopping a car and searching without a warrant, unless our Constitutional Bill of Rights have been repealed while I wasn’t looking.
Police work isn’t easy, and it can be dangerous. It can also be dangerous being a high-spirited kid encountering police who lack respect for human life and basic rights.
It doesn’t take specialized formal training for anyone of reasonable intelligence to know that placing an airtight bag over the head of a person manacled head and foot will kill that person. Whitewashing this stain by simply paying police officers to attend hours of classes cautioning them not to put plastic bags over the heads of people in handcuffs would insult the intelligence of professional police officers who respect life and the responsibility with which they are entrusted. For generations, every toddler in America has been warned repeatedly by parents and teachers about the danger of putting plastic bags over their own or their playmate’s heads.
It is time to come out of the shadows and stop pretending that you just didn’t see. It is not ‘premature’ to speak up now. Did not this young man have a right-to-life? Pulling that bag over the head of an untrained person bound hand and foot is the same as pointing a loaded gun at his head at point blank range and pulling the trigger, except that asphyxiation takes several minutes to kill. Did Matthew Sheridan die due to “an accident” caused by lack of training, or due to inexcusable official misconduct, criminal negligence and disregard for life? Or did Matthew die from extra-judicial punishment meted out on the street? The answer is blowing in the wind.
July 22, 2004
An Inquest into the death of Matthew Sheridan was held on September 20 and 21 at the Ozaukee County Justice Center. See “Examining an Inquest” for a sequel to this story.