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Coroner: Student's death in police custody a homicide
01:55 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

NEW: Attorney for family: "They have hid this from us for five months"

The coroner says the 21-year-old's death was homicide, result of "blunt force trauma"

Matthew Ajibade broke female sergeant's nose while being restrained after arrest, police say

CNN  — 

The death of a 21-year-old Nigerian student in an isolation jail cell in Savannah, Georgia, on New Year’s Day has been ruled a homicide, Chatham County coroner William Wessinger said Thursday.

Matthew Ajibade’s cause of death “is listed as blunt force trauma, which was really a combination of several things that were enumerated in his autopsy report by the GBI,” the coroner said, citing “abrasions, lacerations, skin injuries about the head and some other areas of the body. There was some small amount of blood inside the skull case.”

Wessinger stressed that homicide means only that another person was involved. It is not tantamount to murder, though it includes murder, he said.

Nine Chatham County deputies were fired in connection with Ajibade’s death last month, said Gena Bilbo, spokeswoman for the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office. Cpl. Maxine Evans and Cpl. Jason Kenny, two of those nine deputies had been on paid leave for “inappropriate actions” in the case, Bilbo said.

Cpl. Maxine Evans

Authorities provided no further details into the deputies’ conduct.

Ajibade, who had bipolar disorder, died in custody after he “became combative during the booking process,” the Sheriff’s Office alleged.

During the alleged jail altercation, three deputies were injured, including a female sergeant who suffered a concussion and broken nose, authorities said.

The alleged combativeness doesn’t square with family members’ description of the 21-year-old, whom they described as a much-loved “geeky kid.”

Family’s lawyer: ‘They have hid this from us’

On Thursday, a lawyer representing the family said the release of Ajibade’s death certificate raises more questions than answers.

“It demands even further, absolute transparency,” said attorney Mark O’Mara, who’s also a CNN legal analyst.

He criticized authorities for how they’ve handled the case.

“First of all, they knew (the cause of death) back in January, I’m sure. This (death certificate) was signed May 8, and a month later we find out about it … . I just don’t see how they can be so insensitive to the man, and insensitive to the family’s grief,” O’Mara said. “They have hid this from us for five months. It makes no sense.”

Ajibade’s family has hired Mark O’Mara, a CNN legal analyst who once represented George Zimmerman in the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

“We still need questions answered how Matthew’s life was taken from him,” O’Mara added.

Ajibade was diagnosed with bipolar disorder three years ago and was having a medical emergency at the time of his arrest and confinement, O’Mara said.

Domestic disturbance call led to arrest

Savannah police arrested Ajibade on January 1 after receiving a call about a domestic disturbance.

Cpl. Jason Kenny

When police arrived, they witnessed Ajibade holding a women under a blanket, according to an incident report. Police uncovered the two and noticed that the woman’s “face was bruised, and her nose was bleeding,” the report says.

Officers ordered Ajibade to release the woman, but he did not comply, the report says, adding that when police tried to arrest Ajibade, he proceeded to “resist apprehension in a violent manner.”

He was accused of domestic violence, battery and obstruction of an officer.

A woman whom he identified as his girlfriend tried to inform police of his mental health issues, O’Mara said.

“She also gave police a bottle of his medication,” the attorney said.

Once at the jail, officials say, Ajibade had to be restrained, during which time he injured the three officers. He was then moved to an isolation cell because of his “dangerous behavior,” a police news release says.

Deputies conducted welfare checks on Ajibade and on their second check, he was found nonresponsive, police say. First aid was administered by the jail’s medical unit staff. Despite CPR and attempts to restart his heart with a defibrillator, Ajibade could not be revived, according to the release.

It’s unclear how much of the event, if any, was captured on the jail’s surveillance system, or whether officers conducted a mental health evaluation before Ajibade’s death.

County government officials declined CNN requests for an interview, citing the ongoing investigation.

The Sheriff’s Office has requested that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation conduct an independent investigation. A GBI spokesperson said an autopsy had been conducted, but that a cause of death was pending toxicology reports.

CNN’s Devon M. Sayers, Joshua Berlinger and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.