Equal justice under law, no matter how many chromosomes

justiceforethanIn January, a 26-year old man was killed outside a movie theater while being restrained by off-duty police officers. His crime: not paying for a movie ticket. Why isn’t more known about what caused this homicide? 

This senseless death happened in Frederick County, Maryland. A grand jury refused to bring charges. Then again, the only witnesses they heard from were the off-duty officers themselves. Key witness statements they reviewed also were done in the presence of the involved officers.  

This case has received wide attention. ABC news, the Huffington and Washington Posts, and, last week, the New York Times, have all covered it. A petition calling for an investigation at change.org has almost 350,000 signatures. And, the mark of a true movement: the case has its own twitter hashtag: #justiceforethan.

Ethan is—was—Robert Ethan Saylor. He had gone to see a movie. Saylor sat through one viewing and re-entered the movie theater to see it again without purchasing another ticket. When he refused to leave, off-duty police officers moonlighting as security guards were called. They forcibly removed Saylor and were handcuffing him when the group fell down an inclined ramp. Saylor had been struggling, but then suddenly stopped. An ambulance arrived, but he never regained consciousness.

The autopsy found abrasions to his nose, the back of his head, abdomen, back, and left elbow, with bruising on his forehead. The report concluded that Ethan was the victim of a homicide, dying from asphyxiation, with cartilage in his throat having been fractured.

But it’s another finding noted in the autopsy report which is why this case got my attention:

[Saylor] was already compromised by his Down’s syndrome, obesity, body habitus, and heart disease making him more susceptible to sudden death in stressful conditions which would compromise his breathing.

Having a daughter with Down syndrome, I know that Saylor did not suffocate to death because he had Down syndrome. The throat fracture most likely was the reason, but not his having an extra 21st Chromosome. If anything, his having Down syndrome should have minimized his chances of dying that night.

Having an intellectual disability qualified Saylor for an aide. His aide was present at the movie theater and told the officers that Saylor would resist if they touched him and advised them to simply give Saylor time. But the officers didn’t listen to the aide; they did touch Saylor; and, now Saylor has no more time.

National Down syndrome organizations have taken the lead in Saylor’s case. The Department of Justice has begun its own investigation into whether civil rights were violated. And, just last week, Maryland’s Governor Martin O’Malley empaneled a commission to recommend improvements to police training in dealing with individuals with intellectual disabilities. Tim Shriver, the CEO for Special Olympics and a Maryland resident, is chairing the commission.

But, what is still unanswered is what happened that night and whether the officers violated their own policies on restraint and use of force.

I purposefully had not featured this case on this blog because our national organizations and many other advocates around the country are engaged. But events in this last week made it so I could no longer not speak about it.

Last week, a young woman with Down syndrome was removed from her father and step-mother’s home in a town 45 minutes north of where I live. She had been kept locked in the basement and neglected for so long that she had lost 100 pounds. When removed, she weighed less than 90 pounds. She is now in state custody and her abusers have been indicted. This story came on the heels of another story of a couple in Pennsylvania starving their daughter with Down syndrome to death.

And, then, today, Gov. O’Malley gave a keynote address at a conference here in Louisville. Gov. O’Malley is on a short-list of Democrat presidential candidates. I could no longer simply re-tweet or “Like” posts calling for #justiceforethan.

The few studies of women who have chosen to terminate after a prenatal diagnosis find that among their top reasons are concerns over being able to care for their child and society’s capacity for caring for their children after they are gone. These headlines of neglect, abuse, and homicide only justify those concerns.

The Commission will hopefully prevent such abuses in the future. Gov. O’Malley said in announcing the commission, “I join the multitude of people in Maryland and across the country who mourn this loss of life and who seek ways to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.” Saylor’s mother said in a statement, “The commission is one piece toward ensuring what happened to my son, Ethan, never happens to a member of the disability community again.”

Another needed step, one that would ensure nothing like this ever happens again, particularly involving the same officers, is for Gov. O’Malley to order the release of more information about what happened that night. The photo above is the message written on the reverse side of my business card, which I gave to Gov. O’Malley after his remarks. He said he had not had a chance to speak with Saylor’s mom, yet, but that he had spoken to the pathologist and if she knew more about what happened that night, perhaps she would receive the closure she is seeking.

Perhaps. But that is why more is needed to be known about what happened to Saylor and Gov. O’Malley has the opportunity to deliver that measure of justice for Ethan.

By doing so, it would show that society does care about what happens to individuals with Down syndrome. That those who neglect and starve them will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. And we will not be left to wonder whether officers involved in a homicide of an individual with Down syndrome violated their policies out of disrespect for the individual or covered up their actions to avoid a grand jury indictment.

Perhaps more disclosure will exonerate the off-duty officers. Perhaps it will show how Saylor’s throat was crushed. Or, perhaps it will justify an independent investigation. But full disclosure will let his mother and sister know what happened to their son and brother on the night they thought he was just going to see a movie. And, future parents will know that their elected leaders will ensure equal justice under law for their loved ones, no matter how many chromosomes they have.


  1. I don’t know why so many of us must say this over and over again, yet no action on O’Malley’s part. I wish he could see that there is actually political gain to be had from doing the right thing. Thank you for writing about #JusticeForEthan.


  1. […] by authorities of those with intellectual and developmental disability: Governor O’Malley empaneled a special commission for improvements in the training and interaction by authorities with those with […]

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