Alfonso Santana spent the last moments of his life face down on a sidewalk in Lawrence in 2005.
Now, a jury is set to decide whether Santana’s death, at age 39, was caused by cocaine intoxication, by police who restrained him in a choke hold, or by some other factor.
Santana’s family has brought a wrongful death lawsuit against two State Police troopers and a Lawrence police officer that is scheduled to go to trial Monday in US District Court in Boston.
At the center of the case is a specimen of blood the state medical examiner says was taken from Santana during an autopsy.
The specimen contains a significant amount of cocaine, the state medical examiner says, thus providing an explanation for Santana’s death during a prolonged struggle with several troopers and police officers after they tried to question him outside a suspected drug house.
But a pathologist for the Santana family asserts that something is amiss with that finding. He noted that toxicology tests ordered by the medical examiner found no cocaine in Santana’s urine specimen.
That, he says, is a physiological impossibility,’ because if there is cocaine in a person’s blood, it would show up in the urine, too.
Never in more than 6,000 autopsies had he found cocaine in the blood but not in the urine, Gerald A. Feigin, a former medical examiner in Massachusetts, wrote in a seven-page report on behalf of the Santana family.
Feigin questions whether someone dropped cocaine into the blood specimen while it was being stored at the state medical examiner’s office in Boston.
State Police and state medical examiners work closely together in that Albany Street facility and elsewhere on certain cases.
A reported finding of cocaine present in the blood and negative in the urine implies that the autopsy blood specimen was tampered with, as post-mortem event, by someone ignorant about human physiology and cocaine metabolism,’ Feigin wrote.
Terrel Harris, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, which oversees the medical examiner’s office and State Police, declined to comment.
Lawyers for the defendants, Troopers Mark F. Blanchard and Stephen R. Gondella and former Lawrence police officer Mark Rivet, declined to comment or did not return telephone calls.
Efforts to reach the defendants by telephone were unsuccessful.
In court filings, the police officers deny the allegations against them. Concerning the choke hold, one of the defendants’ lawyers wrote, There is no physical evidence on Mr. Santana that supports this theory.’
In a deposition taken Jan. 29, Feigin was emphatic about his judgment, saying of police, They [expletive] killed this guy by putting him in a choke hold. Now they are covering their butts by taking blood, dumping a rock of crack [cocaine] in, but they’re too . . . stupid to put it in the urine.
Later in the deposition, Feigin said: I don’t believe [a choke hold] was done to kill him. I believe it was done to subdue him or possibly get something out of his mouth. I don’t think there was any intent to kill him.’
Feigin concluded that Santana died after being choked hard and long enough to block the flow of blood to his brain.
Feigin declined to comment, as did the Santana family’s lawyer, Albert L. Farrah Jr.
Independent specialists contacted by the Globe said the presence of cocaine in a blood specimen very often means it will also be found in a urine specimen, because the kidneys, once cocaine breaks down in a person’s system, filter much of the drug into the urine.
When we see cocaine in the blood, we see it in the urine, as a generalization, said Victor Weedn, a veteran Maryland medical examiner.
But, the specialists said, other factors could come into play, such as how long after death the specimens were taken and how long after they were taken they were tested.
In July, US District Judge Richard G. Stearns denied motions from the defendants to dismiss the lawsuit.
Stearns ruled that there was enough evidence supporting the allegation to let a jury decide what happened on that sidewalk.
The circumstances in question began at noon Oct. 19, 2005. Blanchard, Gondella, and Rivet were in plainclothes and conducting surveillance of a suspected drug house on Forest Street in Lawrence, according to Stearns’s summary of various witness accounts filed with the court.
When a red sport utility vehicle approached, Gondella said, he recognized it as the same vehicle he saw while conducting drug surveillance earlier that day on Water Street, according to Stearns’ summary.
Police approached Santana after he parked his vehicle; he produced a driver’s license in the name of Hernan Rivera, later determined to be an alias, Stearns’s summary says.
Blanchard saw Santana put a white object in his mouth. He ignored Blanchard’s orders to spit it out and turned away, prompting Blanchard and Gondella to attempt to restrain him and extract the object, Stearns’s summary says.
Santana was punched in the face and pepper-sprayed by police in a struggle that went on for about 10 minutes, according to court records.
Rivet said in a sworn statement that he was concerned Santana was attempting to destroy evidence and that he wanted to prevent Santana from harming himself by swallowing drugs.
Police eventually succeeded in retrieving what was later determined to be “a small amount of cocaine wrapped in a piece of paper towel, Stearns’s summary says.
For much of the struggle, Santana was held by Gondella, who had his arm crooked around Santana’s neck, the documents say.
After Santana was handcuffed, police noticed he was not breathing and had no pulse. Santana, an immigrant from the Dominican Republican who had been in the United States illegally, was pronounced dead on arrival at Lawrence General Hospital, according to court records.
After receiving toxicology test results, William Zane, who performed the autopsy for the state medical examiner, determined the manner of death to be acute and chronic substance abuse, and the specific cause as acute cocaine intoxication.
Feigin is on the list of witnesses expected to be called to testify at trial. If a jury is persuaded by his arguments and discredits the state medical examiner’s findings of cocaine in Santana’s blood, it is more likely to deliver a verdict in favor of Santana’s family, which is seeking an unspecified amount of money as compensation for his death.
Feigin has served as a county medical examiner in Gloucester and Camden counties in New Jersey since 1998. Prior to that, he was a state medical examiner in Massachusetts for about 10 years.
He came under criticism at the end of his tenure here when it was revealed that he failed to perform a key test in the case of a teenager accused of manslaughter in the death of a middle school teacher in Lowell.
The teacher died six months after being kicked in the head while trying to break up a fight.
Feigin ruled the teacher died of the blow, but another medical examiner conducted a microscopic test on samples from that case and concluded the teacher may have died from heart problems.
Manslaughter charges against the teenager were later reduced to assault.
By Sean P. Murphy
August 20, 2010
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