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Prosecutor says Pulaski County deputies cleared in fatal arrest

by Grant Lancaster | September 17, 2022 at 8:59 a.m.
FILE - A Pulaski County sheriff's office vehicle is shown in this file photo.

A man who died in the custody of Pulaski County deputies in December after a struggle at a Little Rock movie theater likely succumbed to a rare sickle cell disease-related ailment, and the officers involved behaved properly and could not have known the seriousness of his condition, or helped him if they had, a county prosecutor wrote in a Friday letter summing up his review of the incident.

The actions taken Dec. 10 by Capt. Mark Swagerty, an off-duty Pulaski County deputy working security at the Movie Tavern at 11300 Bass Pro Parkway in Little Rock, and other officers involved in the arrest of Terence Caffey, 30, of Little Rock were within the limits of the law, wrote Larry Jegley, prosecuting attorney for the 6th Judicial District, in a letter to Pulaski County Sheriff Eric Higgins.

In the letter, which was released by the Pulaski County sheriff's office at 5 p.m. Friday, Jegley misspells Caffey's first name, and sheriff's spokesman Lt. Cody Burk said the letter misstates Swagerty's rank as sergeant.

Higgins was at an event Friday evening and was unavailable to comment on the letter, Burk said.

Earlier this year, the chief medical examiner at the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory ruled that Caffey died of "Sickle Cell Trait-Related Sickling Crisis during Exertion, Struggle and Restraint," and that the death was a homicide, Jegley wrote. The examiner noted in the autopsy that ruling the death a homicide doesn't imply criminal liability.

The autopsy confirmed that Caffey had sickle cell disease with "readily identifiable sickled red blood cells," Jegley wrote.

However, the diagnosis would not have been nearly as clear to the officers at the theater that night or the paramedics that arrived, Jegley wrote.

[CAUSE OF DEATH: Read Jegley's letter »]

Caffey suffered no other fatal trauma during the course of the incident, which began around 9:57 p.m. when he allegedly attacked a theater employee and ended sometime after 11 p.m. when he was pronounced dead after an hour of CPR, Jegley wrote, citing the medical examiner's findings.

It was still not clear what led Caffey to attack the employee, but he was behaving oddly immediately before the altercation, asking an employee if they had a gun and then sitting on the floor and emptying his pockets on the ground, Jegley wrote.

Footage of the incident, including security camera footage from the theater and body-worn cameras, like one worn by Swagerty, was repeatedly referenced in the letter but not released with it.

Burk said the video would be available next week, citing that there were numerous videos of the nine-month-old incident to upload.

Caffey and Swagerty fought while the deputy was trying to arrest Caffey, with Swagerty restraining Caffey on the ground using his body weight for around seven minutes, Jegley wrote. But, the prosecutor continued, Caffey was the aggressor and never tried to withdraw from the fight or give up, and Swagerty did not Tase, pepper spray or strike Caffey.

"At no time did any officer use more ... physical force to restrain Mr. Caffey than which is required by law," Jegley wrote.

Under those circumstances, Jegley determined that Swagerty committed no criminal wrongdoing.

Swagerty has been back on full duty for several months after a period of administrative leave immediately after the incident and a return to limited duties in late January, Burk said Friday.

Three other deputies involved were also placed on leave but returned to regular duty in January, Burk said at that time.

Little Rock police also responded to the scene, but their actions were within the bounds of the law as well, Jegley wrote.

Jegley did, however, point out that MEMS paramedics did not treat Caffey when they arrived on the scene around 10:11 p.m., choosing instead to go into the theater and treat employees who suffered minor injuries scuffling with Caffey.

Swagerty called for MEMS on the radio after Caffey, who had been handcuffed and sat down against a wall, repeatedly slumped over on the floor and could not remain upright, Jegley wrote. Between that time and when EMTs first saw Caffey, he was having trouble breathing and could not walk, requiring officers to carry him to the front of the theater.

Caffey can be heard on camera saying "I can't breathe. I'm dead," Jegley wrote. Caffey was placed into the back of a Pulaski County patrol vehicle around 10:19 p.m., at which time he had no control over his head or legs.

First responders did not begin treating Caffey until around 10:24 p.m., when a deputy noticed Caffey was unconscious in the back seat and a Little Rock firefighter stated that Caffey was not breathing. At that time, he was shocked with a defibrillator three times and given epinephrine and amiodarone, as well as NARCAN, all of which had no effect.

The "level of care" Caffey received from first responders was "disturbing in light of the tragic outcome," Jegley wrote.

Despite that, Jegley wrote that the rarity of the condition identified post-mortem by the medical examiner prevented him from declaring the failure to diagnose and treat Caffey was "a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in law enforcement's situation."

The prosecutor did not cast doubt on the cause of death determined by the medical examiner, but called the diagnosis "cutting edge, if not somewhat controversial," citing a May 2021 paper by the American Society of Hematology that stated the condition was unlikely to cause death where other traumas were present.

"More compassion on the part of the involved parties might have provided Mr. Caffey with some measure of comfort in his final moments, but palliative care would not have reversed or treated his fatal medical crisis," Jegley wrote.

In March, attorney Ben Crump, known for representing civil rights cases, and members of Caffey's family called for the release of footage of the incident, accusing deputies of using excessive force that led to his death. Crump compared Caffey's death to that of George Floyd.

A call placed with Crump's office Friday evening was not returned, and it was not immediately clear if Crump had made any legal filings involving Caffey's death.

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