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Doing time in a coma

Wauneda Neal leans over the still form of her son and whispers to him and to God, but neither one of them seems to hear.

"Baby, it's me. It's Momma. Can you hear me? God please . . . Baby? Can . . . you . . . hear . . . me?"

The nurse, stiff with starch and professional detachment, answers for him. "He can hear. He just can't do anything about it."

Antonio Edwards lies in a coma in a dim room at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, brain damaged, his blank eyes staring at the ceiling. The 23-year-old construction worker has been this way since Jan. 3, when witnesses said they saw a Miami police officer squeeze Edwards' neck in a choke hold as he lay handcuffed in the street.

Sometime during the struggle, Edwards' heart stopped beating and his brain started to die from lack of oxygen. Paramedics would make his heart beat again, but it would be going too far to say they brought him back to life.

"The police killed him. God just didn't take him," said Neal, a 40-year-old mother of four who had Edwards when she was 17. "Why did they have to do this to him?"

She wants to know why, as witnesses described, Officer Carl Seals kept Edwards in a choke hold even after his hands were cuffed and he was face down on the asphalt.

She wants to know why doctors in the emergency room were led to believe Edwards was suffering from a cocaine overdose _ no drugs were found in his system _ and why police officers at the hospital never told doctors of the choke hold. Doctors treated him for hours on the assumption it was cocaine that stopped his heart.

She wants to know why Seals, an officer with some 20 reprimands in his personnel file, including one for beating a suspect with a radio, was on the force.

And she wants to know why Miami police and the State Attorney's Office are taking so long to figure out why seven officers couldn't arrest her son without putting him in a coma. To Neal, it looks like stonewalling.

The answers are wrapped tight in the loyalty of police officers to one of their own, in a department so haunted by corruption that some Miamians won't let police in their house even after they see the badge. Their uniform binds them, good cops, bad cops _ and cops who make a mistake and find mute allies in the ranks of blue.

A comatose Edwards was charged with resisting arrest with violence and carrying a concealed weapon, after his old Cadillac was spotted illegally parked on a street in northwest Miami. Charges were dropped 35 days later, after it became clear that Edwards might never walk, talk or feed himself again.

Seals, relieved of duty with pay, said through his attorney he did nothing wrong. The FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office have joined Dade County prosecutors and Miami police in the investigation to determine if what happened was a tragic accident or a miscarriage of justice that resulted in a hurried coverup.

"Carl Seals followed legitimate police procedure, as did the other officers," said his attorney, Simon Steckel. "When they finish this investigation, it will be pretty clear that Seals hasn't done anything wrong."

Meanwhile, Wauneda Neal sits by her son's bed and asks God to make him move.

Wauneda Neal

The shackles looked like such a stupid thing, locked on a man who no longer can walk.

"They had them on his legs when they finally let me see him," Neal said. "Were they afraid he was going to get up and leave?"

To her, it was as if police wanted to convince her Edwards had done something to deserve this. The shackles have since come off. He is free.

Neal is like a lot of people in Liberty City no one hears about. Pregnant at 17 and abandoned by her boyfriend, she went to work as a maid, a cook, a seamstress, a construction worker, whatever it took to pay rent, buy groceries, purchase a little dignity.

The baby was Antonio. "He used to go with me to the hotels when he was a little boy and help me take the trash out of the rooms," Neal said.

Edwards, a football player and track star in high school, graduated in 1987 and joined the Navy. He married and had a son. When the marriage failed, he began rearing the infant. It looked as if Edwards had some of his mother's backbone.

But he wasn't as strong as her. In 1988, still in the Navy, he was arrested for cocaine possession. He did 16 months in federal prison.

"He messed up," his mother said, "but he paid for it and came home to do the right thing."

When he got out of prison, he went to live with his mother and worked on a construction crew. He was pouring concrete and hauling bricks when he stepped through a hole in the floor, fell two stories and hurt his back. He was living on worker's compensation, raising his son, helping pay his mother's bills.

He was planning to seek a federal loan to open a laundry business. An application, still blank, is in his dresser drawer.

"He was a man who worked for a living, who had custody of his 3-year-old son and was raising him . . . but it doesn't matter who he was," said A.J. Goodman, one of the lawyers representing him.

"This is a human being. It wouldn't matter if it was a bank robber or a baby rapist. . . . You don't choke someone into a coma when they've already been handcuffed."

The night of Jan. 3, Edwards drove his 1974 Cadillac to the corner of NW 53rd Street and Second Avenue, where he, his girlfriend and her cousin ate chicken in the car, his mother said. About 9:45, an officer approached.

The phone rang in Neal's house a few minutes later. It was Edwards' girlfriend.

"Mrs. Neal, hurry up and get here," she said. "The police are choking him. They're killing him."

Procedure

It was a bad night to tick off police in South Florida.

Earlier that day, North Miami Officer Steve Bauer had been killed in a bank robbery. Miami Beach Officer Kenneth McLeod had been wounded in another shooting. Police were tense, wary _ especially in gun-infested Liberty City.

Witnesses and Miami police tell different stories about what happened to Antonio Edwards.

According to a police report by Officer Allixen Stevens, Edwards was making some kind of deal with a man standing outside his car. When Stevens walked up to the car, Edwards tossed some money on the car seat, handed something to the man and reached for a .25 automatic.

Stevens grabbed the gun, handcuffed him and radioed for backup only when he was unable to get the protesting Edwards into the police car.

At no place in the report is there a mention that Edwards was choked or that he stopped breathing. The report only says he struggled and fell.

"That ain't what happened," said 16-year-old Andy Michael Hodge, who said he witnessed Edwards' struggle with police.

This, according to witnesses, is what happened: A police officer told Edwards to get out of the car and told the two girls to leave. The officer searched Edwards, handcuffed him and told him to get in his police car. Edwards kept saying, "Why're y'all doing this?" He refused to get in the car.

Witnesses don't remember a struggle over a gun.

Other police officers arrived. Seals put an arm around Edwards' neck and yelled: "I'm taking him down." He held him that way, face down, even after his legs had been tied and he had stopped moving.

Medical records later would support what they saw: Edwards suffered a heart attack from lack of oxygen.

"I saw it," said Kenneth Purcell, a 28-year-old businessman.

"He just kept choking him and choking him . . . till he wasn't doin' nothin', just laying on the ground," Hodge said.

The time witnesses say Seals choked Edwards varies, from four or five minutes to 10 minutes.

Hodge said some of the other officers hit Edwards with flashlights after he was down. A homeless man, Donnie Lee, yelled for them to stop, but the police arrested him for disorderly conduct. No one said much after that. About 40 people watched as Edwards' brain began to die.

Paramedics made him breathe again, several long minutes later.

The wide gap in accounts over what happened is not unusual in a place where police often are seen as the enemy. But neither is it automatic. Last week, when a Miami officer shot a Liberty City man brandishing a shotgun, witnesses said the officer did the right thing.

The police report of the Edwards case hinted at a drug deal. Police found no drugs, yet somehow cocaine became the focus of the emergency room staff's attention when he was wheeled in.

Attorney A.J. Goodman believes it was a coverup.

A rumor of cocaine

Initial medical records say Edwards was admitted with cocaine intoxication. Only after a drug test did doctors know that was false. No one seems to know who started that rumor.

Police spokesman Angelo Bitsis said he doesn't know: "Our investigation is not complete."

Later medical records said Edwards had a heart attack while being held in a choke hold during a struggle with police, resulting in anoxic encephalopathy _ brain damage caused by a sudden lack of oxygen.

Goodman thinks police started the rumor, trying to cover their mistake by sending the doctors on a snipe hunt while Edwards lay brain damaged on the bed.

All Wauneda Neal knows is that a paramedic walked up to her in the hospital the day after her son arrived and said: "Don't you let them tell you it was drugs."

Carl Seals

They look good.

They are in good physical shape, most of them. Miami officers in riot gear are fearsome things, toned, armored, 12-gauge-toting bad-asses who would not be there if they didn't have guts.

The problem is, some of them are not smart, some of them are not honest, some of them shouldn't be police. In the early '80s, a hurried and sloppy attempt to match the force with Miami's rapidly changing racial makeup dropped standards so low that police who couldn't even read were hired. The department has raised standards, but its image has suffered.

Seals has been a Miami police officer for 10 years. He was commended for work during the 1989 riots; a riot is a proving ground for a Miami officer, sort of like combat experience in Vietnam. But most of his file is bad, an anthology of laziness and poor judgment.

In 1990, he hit a robbery suspect in the head with his radio. In 1988, working as a telephone operator, he ignored 911 calls while gabbing with friends. In 1987, he confiscated crack cocaine but gave it back when the man asked for it. Also in 1987, he left a revolver and 18 rounds of ammunition on the weight bench in the gym. It was stolen. In 1985, after Seals searched a suspect's car, his supervisor found something Seals had missed: a gun under the front seat.

Allixen Stevens, the officer who wrote the report on the Edwards case, was once a sergeant. He was demoted in 1988 for falsifying an arrest report.

But other police do not bad-mouth them. One officer put it like this: One day he might need one of those officers or their friends for backup _ and he wants to be sure they will show up.

The hold

The choke hold can send a suspect into unconsciousness after only seconds of pressure on the arteries of the neck.

The officer cradles a suspect's windpipe in the crook of an arm, protecting it as he squeezes off the blood to the brain. The suspect will come to, a few minutes later, unharmed. The danger is that, if the officer's arm slips, the forearm becomes a bar across the suspect's throat and can suffocate him.

Some police agencies don't allow their officers to use the hold. Tampa police stopped using it after an officer suffocated a man with it in 1987. Miami allows the hold.

Seals' attorney, Steckel, said his client used the hold correctly to protect himself. He would not talk about specifics, including how long Seals held Edwards.

"But why did they choke him even after he had his hands cuffed behind his back?" asked witness Andy Michael Hodge. "That's what we was asking ourself that night. Why?"

Colors

Edwards' attorneys said there has been an obvious reluctance by the State Attorney's Office to push too hard, dig too deep. His attorneys note that the prosecutors have to work each day with Miami police, allies in their losing war on crime in this violent city.

"We do not comment on ongoing investigations," Dade County State Attorney Janet Reno said. "We are investigating this case as aggressively as any other."

Edwards' attorneys want to know if that is true, why prosecutors complain they could not find witnesses to the arrest when Goodman says she found 15 of them with relative ease, and why, a month after the incident, Seals was still on duty. Goodman said they have treated the case like it was "just another black man who attacked police."

Edwards is black, but so is the officer who choked him. Community leaders who might otherwise accuse the department of racism have been mostly quiet. But black community leaders warned Police Chief Calvin Ross late last week that answers are too slow in coming. The Rev. James Cash warned him that it could lead to a riot.

Ross told the Associated Press that he is proceeding carefully because he does not want to make a mistake. "If this case is botched, if we make statements prematurely . . . the end result could be worse than where we are now."

Antonio Jr.

Wauneda Neal will begin again.

Her son can blink his eyes, but most of the time he lies there oblivious to the world. He could get a little better or he could die, but unless his mother's prayers are answered he never will be like he was. His 3-year-old son, Antonio Jr., is hers now.

Someone has to raise the boy right. By the time this one is grown, she will be an old woman. She will have spent almost her entire life living for someone else.

"Now there's tuxedos that have to be rented and school clothes bought and homework done and . . . Lord God, it's gonna be rough this time."

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