Four security guards were charged with involuntary manslaughter nearly eight years after the death of a Black man who was pinned to the floor at Northland Center Mall in Southfield, Mich., Attorney General Dana Nessel said on Wednesday.
According to USA Today, John Seiberling, Lucius Hamilton, Aaron Maree, and Gaven King were arraigned Wednesday and Thursday on involuntary manslaughter charges in 46th District Court in Oakland County. The men face up to 15 years in prison if convicted. Probable cause hearings for Seiberling and King are set for October 28.
The guards were charged in the death of McKenzie Cochran, 25, of Ferndale, Michigan, the Detroit Metro Times reports. The incident began when mall security was called to the L.A. Diamonds store, where the clerk accused Cochran of suspicious behavior. After an initial confrontation, Cochran struggled with the guards, and was handcuffed and hit with pepper spray. An autopsy showed that Cochran died of compression asphyxiation after being held face down by security guards for nine minutes.
USA Today reports a synopsis of the incident:
In 2014, former Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper said the security kept Cochran constrained for too long while waiting for Southfield Police, who were delayed because of a mistaken location given by a mall dispatcher who sent police to the wrong side of the mall. Security guards were worried that Cochran was possibly armed, as he had approached a jewelry counter and said he wanted to kill somebody. It was later found that Cochran was unarmed.
After responding, Southfield firefighters attempted to revive Cochran using smelling salts and found no pulse or respirations, he was transported to Providence Hospital, where he was later declared dead.
Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office and Southfield Police referred the case to Nessel’s office, USA Today reports. Both organizations have new leadership since the incident occurred in 2014.
“I’m glad that it was referred, I think it’s important that we did this independent review and analysis. I feel very confident in the charges that I’ve explained today,” Nessel said at a news conference on Thursday.
According to the Metro Times, Nessel took over the case in June 2020, following the death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed a knee to his neck for over nine minutes. Footage captured by shoppers at Northland Center mall showed security guards holding Cochran down as he kept saying “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe”—a fate eerily similar to Floyd’s.
“My office will conduct a thorough and comprehensive review of this case to determine whether any additional action should have been taken in response to Mr. Cochran’s death. If the evidence warrants additional action, we will make efforts to ensure justice is served,” Nessel stated in June 2020.
According to the report in USA Today, Nessel denies claims that the nation’s social climate influenced her office’s decision to revisit the case:
“It’s very important that, as prosecutors, that we’re not influenced by public opinion one way or another,” Nessel said. “Our hope is to be completely impartial and unbiased and to look at three things — and three things only — the facts, the evidence and the law.”
Charges were initially not pursued in 2014 because Cooper, believing that they would not win in court, said the current Oakland County prosecutor.
“This isn’t about winning or losing, this is about justice for McKenzie Cochran,” Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald said Thursday. “This case cried out for a second review. It’s a tragic, tragic death, but we have moved forward as a community, as a state and as a country and we no longer swipe these things to the side when we know there has been wrongdoing.”
McDonald added: “It’s been delayed justice, but I’m so thankful that it’s finally here.”
After an eight-month investigation, Cooper declined to charge the officers because she found that the officers were under-trained and had no intent to harm Cochran. In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, Cooper—who stands by her decision not to charge the guards—agreed to ask Nessel to review the case.
An investigative reporter working with the Cochran family brought the case to
Southfield Police Chief Elvin Barren in June 2020, according to USA Today. After consulting with the family that they wanted the attorney general’s office to give the case a secondary review, Barren sought to reexamine the case.
“When I looked at the case, I felt that the case should have moved forward through the judicial system to let all the facts come out and then form a decision of guilt or innocence,” Barren stated.
Gerald Thurswell, an attorney for Cochran’s estate, reached a confidential settlement with a security company. He said he spoke to the guards during the case and gave investigators their statements.
“The bottom line is there was no reason whatsoever to hold him down when he’s begging, ‘I can’t breathe.’ Justice is being served. Clearly there’s probable cause to have them charged,” Thurswell told the Associated Press.