TOPEKA, Kan. — A Black youth's death following a physical struggle with staff at a Kansas juvenile center was a homicide, according to an autopsy report released Monday that contradicts an earlier, preliminary finding that the teenager hadn't suffered life-threatening injuries.
The report said that 17-year-old Cedric Lofton's heart and breathing stopped after he was handcuffed while lying on his stomach. Lofton had briefly been in the custody of the Sedgwick County Juvenile Intake and Assessment Center in Wichita when his altercation with staff members occurred Sept. 24. He was taken to a local hospital and died two days later.
"The family lost their son and their brother, so it's just a tragic and unjustified death," Andrew Stroth, one of the lawyers representing Lofton's family and a Chicago civil rights attorney. "The family is is going to continue to seek answers and pursue all legal remedies available."
The staff members involved in the struggle have not been identified, but they county said they are on paid administrative leave. Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett issued a statement saying his office is reviewing the autopsy report, along with a "lengthy investigation" by the local sheriff's office and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
"In my opinion, Cedric Lofton died as a result of complications from cardiopulmonary arrest sustained after physical struggle while restrained in the prone position," Chief Medical Examiner Timothy Gorrill wrote in the report. "The manner of death is homicide."
Stroth and Steven Hart, another Chicago attorney representing Lofton's family, called on Bennett to pursue criminal charges. Stroth's firm focuses on representing families of people injured or killed by police.
"Between the video evidence that we reviewed and the autopsy, it's clear that this young man was unjustifiably killed," Stroth said.
The autopsy report said that juvenile center employees were "unable to locate a pulse" four minutes after they handcuffed Lofton.
Gorrill wrote that Lofton's subsequent treatment at a local hospital was complicated by brain injuries caused by a lack of oxygen, as well as respiratory failure and "acute kidney injury." Lofton also tested positive for COVID-19.
The report also said that a screening of Lofton's urine resulted in a "presumptive positive" for chemicals found in marijuana. The report was dated Dec. 21.
Sheriff had said Lofton's injuries were not life-threatening
The county issued a statement saying that its officials could not comment because of "the active investigation." Sheriff Jeff Easter said during a Sept. 30 news conference — four days after Lofton's death — that preliminary autopsy results showed only scratches and a bruise on Lofton and not life-threatening injuries.
The autopsy cited reports from authorities that Lofton ran away from a foster home on Sept. 21, then was "erratic and aggressive" toward his foster parents when he returned early Sept. 24. The KBI has said that Wichita police, responding to a call of a disturbance, encountered Lofton outside a house and tried to get him to seek mental health treatment.
The 5-foot-10, 135-pound Lofton resisted police, assaulting one or more of the officers, according the autopsy report, and he was taken to the juvenile center and put in a cell at 2:45 a.m. The autopsy report said that staff at the center let him out of his cell at 4:20 a.m. — to use the restroom, according to the KBI. Lofton was "uncooperative and agitated" and punched a staff member in the head, according to the autopsy report, leading to the struggle with multiple staff members.
Progeny, a partnership pushing Kansas to stop incarcerating young offenders and expand community programs instead, called Lofton "a young person in crisis."
"We cannot continue to fail our youth in Kansas by leaving them with nobody to call during a mental health crisis, and we cannot allow another young person to lose their life when they just needed help," it said in a statement.
The autopsy report said after the altercation with juvenile center employees started, Lofton's ankles were shackled, he was "moved to the floor" and rolled onto his stomach, and he continued to struggle before being handcuffed. The autopsy report said Lofton then "calmed down, making occasional snoring sounds." A minute after being unable to find a pulse, staff began chest compressions and called emergency personnel, just before 5:15 a.m., the report said.