Court: New trial in case of man who told police ‘Can’t breathe’

Cecil Lacy Jr. of Tulalip died in 2015 while in police custody.

Cecil Lacy Jr. (Family photo)

Cecil Lacy Jr. (Family photo)

TULALIP — Attorneys for the widow of a Tulalip man who said “Can’t breathe” shortly before his death while being subdued by police can argue the case at trial, a state Court of Appeals wrote in a ruling released Monday.

Cecil Lacy Jr. was 50 when he died in September 2015 while in police custody on the Tulalip Indian Reservation. He was being detained by two members of the Tulalip Police Department and a Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office deputy. The deputy was on Lacy’s back when the tribal member lost consciousness, according to the 28-page ruling.

The lawsuit against Snohomish County alleged battery and negligence on the part of the deputy. A trial was held in King County where a judge dismissed the case for insufficient evidence before it reached the jury.

In late 2018, King County Superior Court Judge Karen Donohue issued her directed verdict, finding “There is nothing to indicate that (the deputy) escalated the situation or that excessive force was used … There is no testimony at all that any of the officers engaged in excessive force.”

The Court of Appeals wrote that the trial judge was correct in dropping the negligence claim but erred in dismissing the allegation of battery.

At trial, according to the ruling, a plaintiff’s expert on police practices said “a reasonable officer would have recognized that (Lacy) was suffering from excited delirium,” an extremely agitated state often associated with deaths in police custody. An FBI bulletin describes it as “a serious and potentially deadly medical condition involving psychotic behavior, elevated temperature, and an extreme fight-or-flight response by the nervous system.”

The witness maintained that if the deputy had recognized Lacy was experiencing excited delirium, he would have stopped putting pressure on his back. The Court of Appeals wrote that Lacy told officers “(I’m) Freaking out … (I) Can’t breathe” shortly before he lost consciousness.

The deputy, according to the appeals court ruling, told Lacy: “Cecil, you’re breathing. You’re talking. You’re breathing. Just focus on deep breaths … and calm down.”

The interaction from when the deputy became involved and when Lacy lost consciousness was less than nine minutes.

The Court of Appeals wrote: “We cannot conclude, as a matter of law, that (the deputy) acted reasonably when he applied and maintained pressure on the back of a handcuffed, unarmed, mentally ill and agitated human being who was in a prone position, exclaiming that he could not breathe. That decision should have been left to the jury.”

Seattle attorney Ryan Dreveskracht, who is representing Lacy’s wife, said Monday he was not surprised with the Court of Appeals ruling and looks forward to getting the facts in front of a jury. The family continues to maintain that Lacy’s death was a preventable tragedy and the county is liable.

In 2015, the county’s medical examiner at the time ruled the death accidental. It was attributed to a heart attack due to methamphetamine in his system and several health-related factors. Those include an enlarged heart, obesity, hypertension, diagnoses of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder as well as the struggle with police.

Jason Cummings, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecutor, said attorneys in his office were reviewing the Court of Appeals ruling Monday afternoon to determine what next steps should be taken.

“The facts haven’t changed,” he said. “The law hasn’t changed. We remain confident.”

Lacy had been a commercial fisherman who once worked for the tribes recreation department, according to his obituary. He also enjoyed writing.

Eric Stevick: stevick@heraldnet.com


In consideration of how we voice our opinions in the modern world, we’ve closed comments on our websites. We value the opinions of our readers and we encourage you to keep the conversation going.

Please feel free to share your story tips by emailing editor@bellevuereporter.com.

To share your opinion for publication, submit a letter through our website https://www.bellevuereporter.com/submit-letter/. Include your name, address and daytime phone number. (We’ll only publish your name and hometown.) We reserve the right to edit letters, but if you keep yours to 300 words or less, we won’t ask you to shorten it.

More in News

In Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan, which was announced Jan. 28, restaurants can reopen at a maximum 25% capacity and a limit of six people per table. Inslee recently announced all counties will be staying in Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan for the next several weeks. Pictured: People enjoy outdoor dining last summer in downtown Kent. Courtesy photo
Inslee: All of Washington to stay in Phase 2 for a few weeks

The governor issued a weekslong pause on regions moving backward, but has yet to outline a Phase 3.

Entrance to the Tukwila Library branch of the King County Library System. File photo
King County libraries will reopen in some cities for in-person services

Fall City, Kent libraries among six selected for partial reopening.

Mock-up of the future Dick’s Drive-In (photo credit: Dick’s Drive-in)
New Dick’s Drive-In location announced for Bellevue

The famous Seattle hamburger company said they used customer input to decide new location.

In a zipper merge, cars continue in their lanes and then take turns at the point where the lanes meet. (Koenb via Wikimedia Commons)
Do Washington drivers need to learn the zipper merge?

Legislators propose requiring zipper merge instruction in drivers education and in license test.

Pan-fried wontons with chili and spicy garlic sauces (photo credit: Dough Zone Dumpling House)
New Chinese dumpling house to open in downtown Bellevue

Dough Zone menu to feature soup dumplings and pan-fried wontons.

A South King Fire & Rescue firefighter places a used test swab into a secure COVID test vial on Nov. 18, 2020, at a Federal Way testing site. (Sound Publishing file photo)
Masks are still king in combating new COVID strains

A top UW doctor talks new strains, masks and when normal could return.

Washington State Capitol Building in Olympia. File photo
Democrats look to allow noncitizens to serve on school boards

A Senate bill takes aim at a state law requiring anyone seeking elected office to be a citizen.

A CVS pharmacist prepares a COVID-19 vaccine at Village Green Retirement Campus in Federal Way on Jan. 26. Olivia Sullivan/Sound Publishing
State health leader: We have a plan, we don’t have the supply

Two months after the COVID vaccine landed in Washington, many still struggle to secure their shots.

An Island Park Elementary teacher and her students hit the books on Feb. 8 in the Mercer Island School District. The single largest amount of Gov. Jay Inslee’s newly announce relief package, $668 million, will go to public elementary and secondary schools to prepare for reopening for some in-person learning and to address students’ learning loss. Courtesy photo
Inslee signs $2.2 billion COVID relief package

The federal funds will go to fight COVID, aid renters and reopen shuttered schools and businesses.

Most Read