Death of man in police custody ruled homicide
By Christine Armario
SUFFOLK COUNTY, N.Y. — The death of a Bay Shore man who collapsed following a violent struggle with Suffolk police in April - in which he was struck with flashlights - has been ruled a homicide.
In a written statement released Thursday night, Suffolk County Medical Examiner Yvonne Milewski said Kenny Lazo suffered "sudden cardiac death following exertion associated with prolonged physical altercation with multiple blunt impacts." She said a contributory cause of death was obesity.
Milewski added that the finding of homicide is a "medical determination" and "does not imply any potential criminal responsibility or civil liability on the part of any individuals."
Wendy Ladd, a Health Department spokeswoman, said Milewski would not comment further.
Lazo, 26, was allegedly caught selling drugs in West Islip on April 12. Detectives asked for a uniformed officer to locate Lazo's vehicle and they pulled him over on the Southern State Parkway. When Lazo got out, he allegedly elbowed a detective who had approached him, and then ran away.
The officers tackled Lazo to the ground, but he managed to get up. A violent struggle followed in which Lazo allegedly reached for one officer's gun. Police said they struck Lazo with flashlights to control him.
Lazo was arrested and brought to the Third Precinct, where he collapsed. The Brentwood Legion Ambulance was called to the precinct at 9:02 p.m. It arrived three minutes later and left the precinct at 9:19 p.m. Lazo was pronounced dead on arrival to Southside Hospital at 9:25 p.m.
Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer said he had not seen the medical examiner's report and that the investigation is ongoing. He declined to comment, citing possible litigation, but said the ruling of homicide is a "very broad definition. So I think it should be made very clear that homicide is not a murder."
Suffolk prosecutors must determine whether any criminality is involved and decide whether to take the case to a grand jury. Bob Clifford, a spokesman for the district attorney's office, said they are awaiting the Homicide Squad's report.
Robert Gottlieb, a Manhattan defense attorney and former prosecutor, said a homicide ruling could translate into various charges related to a death, from negligent homicide to intentional murder.
"The DA is going to have to determine whether or not the police officers were justified in hitting him as they said they did," he said. "A police officer certainly under certain circumstances, under certain conditions, does have the right in performing his lawful duty to strike somebody, even with a flashlight."
Lazo's mother wailed as she spoke to a reporter. "Nothing is going to return my son," Patricia Gonzalez said in a telephone interview. "Justice. That's all I ask."
Attorney Fred Brewington, who is representing the family, said they were renewing their call for an independent federal investigation and the officers' arrest. The officers' names have not been released.
"This is saddening news for the entire community and this family," Brewington said.
Copyright 2008 Newsday