/ 13 November 2007

The ‘crude, rude, brutal’ death of Carol Gotbaum

A private pathologist hired by the family of a South African-born woman who died in police custody at the Phoenix airport said she accidentally strangled herself — but he also blamed police for her death.

Dr Cyril Wecht agreed with a medical examiner’s earlier report that an intoxicated Carol Anne Gotbaum accidentally strangled herself on her shackles in a holding room at Sky Harbour International Airport on September 28.

But Wecht also said officers roughed up the 45-year-old mother of three, who was flying from New York to an alcohol treatment centre, and said they should have watched her as she sat in the holding room alone, screaming.

Gotbaum had become enraged when the gate crew did not let her on a plane, police said. In the holding room, she was found unconscious with the handcuffs up around her neck.

”This is a person who cries out for medical care, attention, appraisal, evaluation, appropriate treatment,” Wecht told the Associated Press. ”Anyone with a modicum of training would know this.”

A government autopsy said Gotbaum was intoxicated on alcohol and prescription antidepressants, and that her blood-alcohol level was 0,24% — three times Arizona’s legal limit of 0,08 for driving while intoxicated.

”That insensitivity, that crude, rude, brutal, aggressive treatment, are directly responsible for her death,” Wecht said. He said he sent his findings to family lawyer Michael Manning.

Police spokesperson Sergeant Andy Hill said officers followed proper procedures when they arrested Gotbaum, who worked as a department store buyer in London before moving to New York with her husband.

”The moment they knew she was under medical distress, they made every effort to try and save her life,” including cardiopulmonary resuscitation, Hill said. The department is reviewing its procedures to see whether any policy changes are needed.

Gotbaum’s family has accused police of mistreating her. They have not decided whether to sue police, but the Maricopa County medical examiner’s report ”makes it more likely they’ll make a claim”, Manning said.

The government autopsy report ”says she was obviously sick before she went into the room, and she was left unattended with a 20-inch (51cm) chain, and she asphyxiated on that chain,” Manning said.

The attorney said Phoenix police did not act appropriately. Local and national police standards call for officers to notify medical authorities when they are arresting someone who appears physically or mentally ill — not after the person is in custody and unconscious, he said.

”It doesn’t appear that they did” notify medical authorities in time, Manning said.

”If they don’t do that, if they make that mistake, then they’re not supposed to leave that person shackled up and unobserved.” ‒ Sapa-AP