Imani Bell’s father happy with charges brought in daughter’s death

Eric Bell said during a Wednesday press conference that he was pleased the Clayton District Attorney's Office has brought second-degree murder charges against two coaches in the 2019 heatstroke death of his daughter Imani. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

caption arrowCaption
Eric Bell said during a Wednesday press conference that he was pleased the Clayton District Attorney's Office has brought second-degree murder charges against two coaches in the 2019 heatstroke death of his daughter Imani. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The father of a Clayton County student who died of heatstroke two years ago during outdoor conditioning drills at school said Wednesday he is happy that second degree murder charges have been filed against two coaches who were instructing his daughter, Imani Bell.

Eric Bell, who is a high school basketball coach in DeKalb County, said the day his daughter died was so hot that his school called off its outdoor practices because of the heat index.

He said the charges, which also include second degree cruelty to children, come at a somber time for him and his wife.

“Today is a bittersweet day for the family,” Bell said during a Wednesday press conference. “My wife’s birthday was a couple of days ago. Imani’s death day is August 13.

“It’s just a time of grieving.”

A Clayton County grand jury last month indicted Larosa Maria Walker-Asekere and Dwight Broom Palmer in the 2019 death of the 16-year-old. The two were coaches at Elite Scholars Academy in Clayton County where Imani collapsed while performing drills for the basketball team as the heat index soared to 103 degrees.

Imani died later that evening at the hospital.

Walker-Asekere and Palmer were also charged with involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct.

“This entire thing happened because a lot of metaphorical balls dropped,” said Justin Miller, the family’s attorney, who also praised the Clayton County District Attorney’s Office for bringing the charges. “Common sense is not common and you see that in this case and with others like it.”

Clayton County District Attorney Tasha Mosley declined Wednesday to talk about any aspects of the case against the coaches, including why they were charged with murder.

Miller told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Tuesday that the murder charge was handed down because Imani’s death occurred during the commission of another felony — cruelty to children.

Reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found the school appeared to have violated district policy that requires suspension of outside athletic activities when the heat index hits 95 degrees.

Allowing athletic activity in that heat also appeared to violate Georgia High School Association policy, according to a review of district policy.

caption arrowCaption
Larosa Maria Walker-Asekere is one of two coaches from Elite Scholars Academy charged in the August 2019 death of student Imani Bell.

Larosa Maria Walker-Asekere is one of two coaches from Elite Scholars Academy charged in the August 2019 death of student Imani Bell.

caption arrowCaption
Larosa Maria Walker-Asekere is one of two coaches from Elite Scholars Academy charged in the August 2019 death of student Imani Bell.

Mosley said the indictment took two years because it was one of hundreds of cases backlogged in the court system. Her office, she said, closed down in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Normal operations returned in the spring, Mosley said, and four grand juries were empaneled concurrently — including the one that handed down charges against the coaches.

“We just had our first successful jury trail this week and I’m ecstatic,” she said. “We’re slowly getting the wheels of justice moving again down here.”

caption arrowCaption
Dwight Broom Palmer is one of two coaches from Elite Scholars Academy charged in the August 2019 death of student Imani Bell.

Dwight Broom Palmer is one of two coaches from Elite Scholars Academy charged in the August 2019 death of student Imani Bell.

caption arrowCaption
Dwight Broom Palmer is one of two coaches from Elite Scholars Academy charged in the August 2019 death of student Imani Bell.

College bound

The family said Imani would have been heading for college this year, and perhaps could have been a sophomore because of the college credits earned in advanced classes she took at Clayton State University.

But those dreams were cut short that summer day in August.

According to the autopsy report recounting the moments leading up to her collapse, Imani and eight of her teammates on the girls basketball team had gathered that day for conditioning.

They were told to run up a hill, perform jumping jacks and then come back down the hill. But Imani struggled and coaches, noticing she was lagging, encouraged her and provided water, the report says.

The players ran a quarter-mile lap around the track and then were instructed to run a set of stairs. Imani tried to run with her teammates, but settled into a fast-paced walk with a coach walking at her side, the report said.

When she arrived at the stairs, Imani began pulling herself up by the railing, the report said.

“A coach was with her, encouraged her and may have physically assisted her up the stairs. As Miss Bell neared the top ... (she) leaned into the rail and then went limp,” according to the report.

Chris Steward, a managing partner at Stewart Miller Simmons, which is representing the family, said the charges the coaches face will be an example to others about addressing the needs of children in sports.

“Imani Bell’s name will now stand for change in sports across this country,” he said. “Coaches will have to think twice about the level they’re willing to push athletes to. So her name will forever be remembered for change.”