DETROIT — Four people were charged Wednesday with involuntary manslaughter, nearly eights years after the death of a Black man who was pinned to the floor at a suburban Detroit shopping mall.
McKenzie Cochran, 25, of Ferndale, Michigan, struggled with guards and was hit with pepper spray at Northland Mall in Southfield, Michigan, in 2014. An autopsy showed that Cochran died of compression asphyxiation that prevented him from breathing.
Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office said Lucius Hamilton, John Seiberling, Gaven King, and Aaron Maree were arraigned Wednesday and Thursday on involuntary manslaughter charges, a 15-year felony. Probable cause hearings for King and Seiberling are scheduled for Oct. 28.
The case was referred to Nessel’s office by Southfield Police and the Oakland County Prosecutor’s Office, both organizations have gotten new leaders in the years that have passed.
“I’m glad that it was referred, I think it’s important that we did this independent review and analysis,” Nessel said at a news conference announcing the charges Thursday. “I feel very confident in the charges that I’ve explained today.”
The charges come after Nessel announced in June 2020 that her office would be reviewing the case, amid national protests demanding justice for George Floyd, who died at the hands of Minneapolis police. Similar to Floyd, video captured by shoppers at the Southfield mall showed several security guards holding Cochran down, one straddling him, as he kept saying “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.”
Nessel denied that the national climate played a role in her office’s decision to revisit the case, rather that it was simply following a referral from the organizations.
“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.”
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Charges were initially not pursued in 2014 because of former Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica 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.”
The case was brought to Southfield Police Chief Elvin Barren’s attention in June 2020 by an investigative reporter working with the Cochran family. Barren, after confirming with the family that they wanted a secondary review by the attorney general’s office, found that the case was worthy of reexamination.
“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 said.
An initial investigation of the incident in 2014 found that the officers were under-trained, and had no intent to harm Cochran, resulting in no charges against the security guards by Cooper.
Cooper, who has defended her decision to not pursue charges, agreed to ask Nessel to review the case on the heels of the Black Lives Matter movement and public pressure.
In 2014, 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.
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An attorney for Cochran’s estate, Gerald Thurswell, reached a confidential settlement with a security company. He said he interviewed the guards during the litigation and subsequently gave the depositions to investigators.
“The bottom line is there was no reason whatsoever to hold him down when he’s begging, ‘I can’t breathe,’” Thurswell told The Associated Press. “Justice is being served. Clearly there’s probable cause to have them charged.”
He likened it to the death of Floyd, who said he couldn’t breathe when his neck was pinned under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in 2020. Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter.
“This could have been the first case,” Thurswell said, referring to the nearly eight years that have passed since Cochran’s death. “This shouldn’t have been the last case.”
The mall closed in 2015.
Contributing: The Associated Press
Follow Miriam Marin on Twitter @miriammarin