Two Clayton County coaches charged with murder in teen heatstroke death

Imani Bell

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Two Clayton County coaches have been charged with second degree murder and second degree cruelty to children in the 2019 heatstroke death of Elite Scholars Academy student Imani Bell.

A grand jury indictment, handed down July 1, says Larosa Maria Walker-Asekere and Dwight Broom Palmer are responsible “by conducting outdoor conditioning training for student athletes in dangerous heat, resulting in the death of Imani Bell due to hyperthermia and rhabdomyolysis.”

Rhabdomyolysis is syndrome resulting from the breakdown of skeletal muscle fibers with leakage of muscle contents into the circulation, according to an article on the condition published in the American Family Physician Journal.

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The coaches are also charged with involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct.

Imani, 16, collapsed Aug. 13, 2019, while doing outdoor basketball drills at the school as the heat index shot up to 106 degrees.

The District Attorney’s Office did not respond to a phone message seeking comment on the indictment.

There is an average of 702 heat-related deaths every year in the United States, according to a June 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In those cases, heat as the underlying cause killed 415 people and was a contributing cause in 287, the report says.

Jessica Cino, a partner with an Atlanta law firm, said the circumstances of Imani’s death do not appear to warrant second degree murder charges because that requires intent. Second degree murder is defined as an intentional killing without premeditation.

“What happened is what we call reckless,” Cino said. “It is what we would call negligent. The murder charges seem excessive in this situation.”

Justin Miller, an attorney for the Bell family and a cousin of Imani’s, said the second degree murder charge is proper because it was done in association with another felony — in this case, cruelty to children. Miller said the district attorney’s office informed the family of the charges before they were filed.

“The charges are good,” he said. “Someone is being held responsible. This is what the family wanted.”

An autopsy performed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation determined the manner of death an “accident.”

When asked Tuesday whether the indictment conflicted with that finding, GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles said there “have been no new updates to our initial Medical Examiner’s results from 2019.”

“The (medical examiner) findings are a medical determination,” Miles said, then referred a reporter to the district attorney’s office.

Training in heat

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.

The teen’s family filed a lawsuit against the school’s coaching staff and the district in February for wrongful death, pre-death pain and suffering and for funeral and burial expenses. They have planned a press conference for Wednesday.

“We just want closure in this whole situation,” Imani’s mother Dorian Bell said during the February news conference announcing the lawsuit. “We need that. That’s a part of our healing.”

A school district spokesman declined to comment when asked if the coaches were still employed by the school.

According to the autopsy report recounting of the moments leading up to the collapse, Imani was one of eight teammates on the girls basketball team who gathered that August day for conditioning.

The players were told to run up a hill, perform jumping jacks and then come back down the hill. Imani lagged, at which time the coaches were “encouraging her and providing her water,” the report says. The players ran a quarter-mile lap around the track and then were instructed to run a set of stairs.

“Miss Bell attempted to run with the girls for the last lap but was unable and did a fast paced walk,” the report says. “One of the coaches noticed Miss Bell was tired, so he started walking the last lap with her and encouraged her.”

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

“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.”

Miller said the family is pleased that the charges have been filed and is looking forward to their day in court. He said the two-year anniversary this Friday of Imani’s death comes near both her mother’s and brother’s birthdays, making what should be a joyous occasion somber.

“Her parents are doing OK,” he said. “They are up and down.”

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