Robert Saylor's Death Ruled A Homicide: Man With Down Syndrome Died In Police Custody

02/18/2013 12:57 pm ET | Updated Feb 20, 2013

The death of a man with Down syndrome who was reportedly killed after lying face-down in police custody has been ruled a homicide.

WJLA reports that Robert Saylor, 26, of New Market, Md., was asphyxiated on Jan. 12, according to a medical examiner's ruling late last week.

A "law enforcement source familiar with the case" told the station that Saylor "went into distress when he was put face down on the ground."

Police were reportedly called to a Frederick movie theater by employees who couldn't get Saylor to leave. He had come to the theater with a health aide, paid admission for "Zero Dark Thirty," but allegedly remained after it was over.

Dr. George Kirkham, a criminologist and former law enforcement officer, told the Frederick News Post that Saylor's death may have been caused by positional asphyxia.

Positional asphyxia is typically the result of an intense struggle and often involves a person who is handcuffed and lying on their stomach after the struggle. Kirkham said people often panic and can't catch their breath. People with larger stomachs are particularly vulnerable, he said, because their bellies will push into their sternums, making breathing even more difficult.

Frederick County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Jennifer Bailey said the case is still under investigation and that the three officers involved in Saylor's death -- Lt. Scott Jewell, Sgt. Rich Rochford and Deputy First Class James Harris -- "continue to work their normal assignments," according to the Post.

Frederick County State's Attorney Charlie Smith said his office is reviewing the incident and has not decided whether to bring charges.

WJLA previously spoke with Saylor's mom after the incident.

"He just loved unconditionally everybody," Patti Saylor said. "He has never had anyone put their hands on him in his life. He would not have been doing anything threatening to anybody."

Police officers nationwide often lack appropriate training for dealing with suspects who have special needs, according to a study by Crisis Intervention Team International.

Other research by disability advocacy groups has found that "law enforcement officers often receive little or no training in the area of intellectual and developmental disabilities and have difficulty recognizing a person who has this disability."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified Jennifer Bailey's position. She is the spokesperson for the Frederick County Sheriff's Office. The story has also updated previous references to the trainings police receive to deal with suspects with mental illness, to indicate the trainings to handle individuals with mental disabilities, such as Down syndrome.

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