By Jess Swanson
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
After the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and The Intercept released “Drowning by Sunrise,” a documentary short that investigated the drowning death of 16-year-old Damain Martin, civil rights lawyer Ben Crump announced that he is representing Martin’s family in a lawsuit against the Sunrise Police Department and Broward County.
“We’re going to get to the truth about this drowning,” Crump said January 2 while standing next to the canal in Lauderhill where Martin drowned following a police chase. “This drowning by Sunrise could have been avoided had police just done their jobs …You’re a professional, and your training tells you to help a drowning child.”
Crump has become a national figure after representing the families of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice. He chose to take on Martin’s case after watching “Drowning by Sunrise,” which was produced through a partnership between FCIR and The Intercept and raised questions about Martin’s drowning and the police officer’s use of a Taser.
On March 8, 2019, Damain Martin was with a group of teenagers who were in a reported stolen car. When Sunrise Police officers pulled up to the car, all of the teenagers fled. Martin ran the fastest and farthest, leading officers on a foot pursuit through a residential community. During the chase, a Sunrise Police officer deployed his Taser as Martin entered a shallow canal. A witness stated that as Martin began to struggle, he asked officers three times for help before going under. The Sunrise officers stood on the bank as Martin drowned. An officer there from the neighboring Lauderhill Police Department attempted to throw a rope to Martin.
Thirty minutes later, divers retrieved the teenager’s body and pronounced him dead. He was unarmed and mostly unscathed except for a small bloody mark on his forearm. The Broward Medical Examiner’s Office and the police ruled the death an accidental drowning and reported that there was no evidence of the police Taser making contact with Martin. The Broward Sheriff’s Office death investigation confirmed those findings.
Martin’s drowning death didn’t make sense to his friends and family. He was an exceptional swimmer and taught his younger cousin to swim. They suspected electrical currents from a Taser could have caused his muscles to spasm and contract, debilitating him as he entered the water.
In 2018, law enforcement’s use of Tasers killed at least 49 people. Last year, the Los Angeles Times reported that about 1 in 1,000 black men and boys in the United States can expect to die at the hands of police. Another study published in the American Psychological Association found that black youth are mistaken as older and perceived as guilty when accused of a crime.
Along with Black Lives Matter activists, Martin’s friends and family held at least two demonstrations to demand answers from the Sunrise Police Department, which they say they never received. “The [Sunrise Police Department] didn’t give their condolences; they didn’t say nothing to me,” Martin’s mother Tequila Waters said. “They just treat us like we’re nothing.”
In reviewing autopsy photographs for “Drowning by Sunrise,” the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and The Intercept discovered that the medical examiner had dismissed as “faint” and “superficial” an injury on Martin’s right arm that is a candidate for a Taser strike wound.
Angelique Corthals, a biomedical and forensic anthropologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, confirmed in the film that the wound is precisely the type she’d look for in investigating whether a Taser occurred. (The medical examiner in Broward County stood by his report.)
“The autopsy is very, very thorough. However, in the report, there’s a missing detail, a missing wound on the forearm of Damain. If you are investigating a potential case of Taser, you definitely [are] looking for this type of injury,” Corthals said in the film. “As thorough as the pictorial evidence is in the autopsy report, the report does not mention this wound.”
Waters said her family is still mourning her son’s death and his younger siblings wake up asking where Martin has gone. “I will never see my son again and I just hope someone will be held accountable,” Waters said
An internal investigation by Sunrise Police Department found that Martin drowned solely due to his decision to enter the water as he was running from police. The report stated that officers would have placed their own lives in peril had they attempted to rescue him.
“Even if you don’t have a legal duty to rescue under the law, if you’re responsible for putting someone in a vulnerable position, then you do have that duty,” said Paul Butler, a legal analyst and former federal prosecutor, in “Drowning by Sunrise.”
“If the officer Tased Damain and then observed Damain jump in the water and the officer just watched, not only would that be cruel, not only would that be inhumane — it could very well be illegal.”
The Sunrise Police Department’s weapons use policy advises against deploying Tasers on juveniles or near elevated structures and bodies of water. But police investigators determined that the officer’s Taser deployment was in compliance with department policy and state law.
Crime scene photographs obtained for the film “Drowning by Sunrise” place the Taser cartridge roughly five feet from the sea wall. The police officer deployed a Taser that fired two probes: the first was recovered 33 feet from the sea wall; the second was never found, even after metal detectors were used. During its investigation, the Broward Sheriff’s Office stated that deputies did not search the water for the missing probe.
“Fighting for the truth behind the drowning of Damain Martin is about fighting for the humanity, importance and value of the lives of all black boys,” said South Florida civil rights lawyer Sue-Ann Robinson, who is working with Crump on the lawsuit. “Civil rights cases are about the voiceless and marginalized demanding their humanity be recognized and we are proud to stand with the family of Damain Martin.”