Judge tosses indictment against Fulton officers in jail death

Defendants were charged with murder after detainee Antonio May died

A Fulton County Superior Court judge on Monday threw out a grand jury indictment against six current and former detention officers who were charged with murder in connection with the 2018 death of a Fulton County Jail detainee.

The jailers were also charged with aggravated assault, battery and violation of oath of office after Antonio May died. The 32-year-old father of three from Macon had been tased, beaten and pepper sprayed in the jail, according to a wrongful death lawsuit the family filed in federal court.

In his six-page order, Fulton Superior Court Judge Robert C.I. McBurney wrote the defendants should have been allowed to appear before the grand jury as state law requires for current and former peace officers.

“The court thus finds that all six defendants were entitled to notice of the district attorney’s intention to present an indictment charging them with crimes allegedly committed while performing their official duties,” McBurney wrote. “They were similarly entitled to appear before the grand jury as it considered the state’s presentment. Because none of this occurred, the present indictment is quashed.”

Fulton District Attorney Fani Willis said her office would file a motion asking the judge to reconsider his decision.

“The special privilege to appear before a grand jury is not provided to jailers by Georgia law,” she said through a spokesman. “All six defendants were jailers at the time of the incident. As such, we plan to file a motion for reconsideration, and if necessary, appeal the order.”

The indictment identifies the defendants as Arron Cook, Guito Dela Cruz, Omar Jackson, Jason Roache, Kenesia Strowder and William Whitaker. Attorneys representing them said the judge made the right decision. Among them is Amanda Clark Palmer, who represents Roache.

“We were confident from the beginning that Deputy Roache should have been given the opportunity to speak directly to the grand jurors before they indicted him,” she wrote in an email. “In declining to invite him, the state purposefully chose to only give the grand jurors half the story. We are grateful that the court recognized the state’s error and quashed the indictment.”

May died from “sudden cardiovascular collapse from probable excited delirium with physical restraint use, while under the influence of methamphetamine,” according to a Fulton County Medical Examiner autopsy report. The report also mentions he was tased and pepper sprayed but says the role of these actions in his death is unclear.

A forensic pathologist hired by May’s family wrote a separate report, saying the “physical restraints and other measures utilized by the officers were to a reasonable degree of medical certainty the cause of his death.”

“Utilization of these measures by jail personnel clearly exacerbated an already existing medical condition, characterized by mental illness and drug use that was unaddressed during this period of incarceration,” wrote Dr. William Anderson of Orlando-based Forensic Dimensions.

Michael Harper, an attorney who represents May’s children, agreed with the Fulton prosecutor’s office and predicted the jailers would be reindicted, if the judge does not reverse his decision.

“All of the officers were jailers, not peace officers,” Harper said.

Sixty-four Fulton jail detainees have died since 2009, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, including three who died last year. The Fulton Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

May was arrested and taken to the Fulton jail after he was accused of throwing rocks at the windows of a downtown Atlanta building. His family’s wrongful death lawsuit says the jail’s medical provider noted that May tested positive for amphetamines and that he was suicidal.

The suit also says that after May allegedly exposed himself while in a holding cell, six jail deputies tased, beat and pepper sprayed him. May was then placed in a restraining chair with a spit mask on his face before he was led to a shower. The deputies later put a water hose to his face — while he was restrained in the chair — to flush away some remaining pepper spray, according to the complaint. May died minutes later.