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Los Angeles Jail Death Ruled Homicide

Los Angeles County coroner's investigators revealed in early April that a jail detainee who died in November during a "physical altercation" with seven sheriff's deputies at the L.A. Twin Towers jail was a victim of homicide.

The incident occurred on Wednesday, November 26, 1997 -- the day before Thanksgiving. Mark Phylaw, 33, was in jail for driving with a suspended license and had just attended a court hearing where he was ordered released. He thought he'd be home to spend Thanksgiving with his family. Instead, he died at the hands of at least seven deputies who reportedly beat, kicked and choked him.

Mark Phylaw had just returned from court along with several dozen other prisoners and was subjected to a strip search. Phylaw reportedly told deputies that an earlier leg injury prevented him from complying with their demands that he "bend over and spread `em." The incident was witnessed by dozens of other prisoners.

"We was coming back from court and they had us all in like a gym," said one former detainee who was there. "There was probably 35 of us in a big old circle. They had us strip all our clothes off and squat and bend over and everything. One guy couldn't bend over -- that was the guy who died."

Another former jail detainee said when deputies told Mark Phylaw to bend over "He said, `I cannot. I have a ligament in my leg that's torn.' The deputy said, `Well you want me to help you....' The police grabbed him, then another police grabbed him and then they were struggling. Before he made it to the ground one police officer came behind him and hit him in the groin with a flashlight. That's when he dropped and they started kicking him and just beating him down. I seen blood. I don't know where it was coming from. They kneed his head. They choked him out. I didn't know if he was dead right then, but I seen how they did it and that's probably what caused it."

The coroner's investigation took nearly five months to complete. "He died of traumatic and positional asphyxia," said Craig Harvey, chief coroner's investigator. "His death was partially caused by someone lying on top of him and partially caused by the position his body was in."

Sheriff's officials sought to downplay the coroner's report, saying that there is no evidence of misconduct in the case. "A homicide doesn't necessarily mean it's criminal," said sheriff's custody chief Bob Pash

"At this point," said Lt. Ray Peavy of the sheriff's Homicide Bureau, "there is nothing to indicate that the deputies did anything other than their jobs."

Attorney Carl Douglas, who represents Mark Phylaw's family, believes the evidence clearly suggests otherwise. One witness says deputies choked Phylaw with a flashlight. Chokeholds are supposedly banned by the Sheriff's Department.

"Our information suggests that Mr. Phylaw was attacked when he expressed his inability to comply with deputies' requests that he bend over to submit to a strip search," Douglas said. "He was pummeled mercilessly and his windpipe was subsequently crushed during the struggle. He was unarmed and naked at the time of his death."

Douglas said he wants the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the homicide. To date, the incident is being investigated by the L.A. Sheriff's Homicide Bureau. None of the deputies alleged to have been involved have been suspended. Phylaw's family intends to file a wrongful death lawsuit in the matter, said Douglas.

Sources: L.A. Times, Revolutionary Worker

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