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State reaches settlement in Tyrone West death lawsuit

Maryland has reached a $400,000 agreement to settle its share of a lawsuit in the 2013 death of Tyrone West from injuries received during a traffic stop in Northeast Baltimore.

The settlement is scheduled for a vote Wednesday by the state Board of Public Works. It is part of the resolution of a federal lawsuit brought by the 44-year-old man’s family against Baltimore and Morgan State University police.

The family’s attorney, A. Dwight Pettit, said both the city and state have settled but declined to elaborate until the public works board and city Board of Estimates have voted. As of Tuesday night, the Board of Estimates’ agenda did not include a settlement with the city.

Mayor Catherine Pugh and her spokesman could not be reached for comment and other city officials said they were not aware of a settlement.

Legal settlements on the state board’s agenda are almost always approved, sometimes without discussion. The amount is on the high end for settlements that come before the board, which includes Gov. Larry Hogan, Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp. Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford is expect to sit in for Hogan this week.

The settlements would resolve a case that provoked anger in Baltimore's African-American community, where it was perceived as one in a long line of cases in which a black man became the victim of excessive force in a confrontation with police.

West’s family and his supporters, including his sister Tawanda Jones, have held weekly vigils — dubbed “West Wednesdays” — for 208 straight weeks since his death in an effort to raise awareness about the case, and made it a staple in the local conversation around police brutality. When media descended on Baltimore following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, West’s case was featured in many news stories.

Jones is no longer listed as the representative of the estate and told the Sun Tuesday night that she did not want to settle the case. She said she plans to hold a press conference later this week.

West was driving through Northeast Baltimore on July 18, 2013, when police pulled him over. According to police and a woman who had been riding in the vehicle with West, officers saw a bulge of suspected drugs in West’s sock, and he tried to escape.

In the ensuing struggle, witnesses told investigators, officers rained down blows on West. One officer described it as the “fight of my life.”

The officers involved in West’s death were cleared of criminal wrongdoing in 2013, in large part because an autopsy determined West had died not from a beating, but because of a heart condition exacerbated by the struggle with police and the summer heat.

Gregg L. Bernstein, Baltimore’s state’s attorney at the time, said the officers involved in the case had used "objectively reasonable force."

The case played a role in Marilyn Mosby's successful challenge to Bernstein in the 2014 Democratic primary. Mosby criticized the way Bernstein handled the case for a lack of "transparency," but declined to reopen it after she was elected state's attorney.

The state became involved in the lawsuit because one of the officers who became involved in the struggle was a member of the Morgan State University police force. The lawsuit describes the officer as being an unusually large man who helped subdue West by sitting on his chest.

A new autopsy commissioned by West’s family came to the conclusion that he died of “positional asphyxiation” while being restrained. Dr. Adel Shaker, a former medical examiner in Alabama and Mississippi, said West “was not able to breathe during restraint process when he was held own by police officers sitting on him.”

Then-Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts ordered an independent review of the case, which in August 2014 determined the officers involved did not use excessive force but made tactical errors that "potentially aggravated the situation" and did not follow basic policies.

The civil lawsuit, filed in June 2014, was slated to go to trial earlier this month, but was pushed back to the fall.

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