Probably Negligent, But Criminal? Coaches Indicted For Murder

One of the first things you come to grips with in criminal law is that bad things happen to good people, and as awful as that realization may be, there isn’t necessarily a crime involved. Sure, there are often people who will immediately react with “someone must pay,” but that rarely reflects a thoughtful understanding of the purposes of criminal prosecution. Is the conduct so reprehensible that it’s criminal? It’s not the outcome, but the conduct, that justifies prosecution. Or at least it shouldn’t be.

Last month, a grand jury in Clayton County indicted LaRosa Maria Walker-Asekere, the head basketball coach at Elite Scholars Academy in Jonesboro, Ga., and Dwight Broom Palmer, the assistant basketball coach, on charges of second-degree murder, cruelty to children, involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct. The charges were announced this week.

Asked why she called on the grand jury to indict the coaches for murder, Tasha Mosley, the Clayton County district attorney said, “The murder charge is second degree and is based on criminal negligence as opposed to malice.”

Assistant coach Dwight Broom Palmer and head coach Larosa Maria Walker-Asekere

It was everyone’s first day of basketball practice, and it was a scorcher. But the coaches had the students run outside.

“Miss Bell attempted to run with the girls for the last lap but was unable and did a fast paced walk,” the report read. “One of the coaches noticed Miss Bell was tired, so he started walking the last lap with her and encouraged her.”

The coach accompanied her, encouraged her, and might have physically helped her up the stairs, authorities said.

“As Miss Bell neared the top … [she] leaned into the rail and then went limp,” the report said.

Imani Bell

Imani Bell died of heat exhaustion. It was a needless, tragic death. But was it second degree murder?

A person commits the offense of murder in the second degree when, in the commission of cruelty to children in the second degree, he or she causes the death of another human being irrespective of malice.

In other words, if death results from the commission of cruelty to children in the second degree, it’s a second degree murder even though it falls short of Georgia’s malice element.

Any person commits the offense of cruelty to children in the second degree when such person with criminal negligence causes a child under the age of 18 cruel or excessive physical or mental pain.

But what’s “criminal negligence“?

Criminal negligence is an act or failure to act which demonstrates a willful, wanton, or reckless disregard for the safety of others who might reasonably be expected to be injured thereby.

Was the coaches’ conduct “willful, wanton or reckless”? There’s a strong argument to be made that they were negligent in having Bell run steps in such heat, especially on the first day of practice. But the legal remedy for that is a civil suit, which the family has brought. But was this reckless, “consciously disregarding a substantial and unjustifiable risk that his act or omission will cause harm or endanger the safety of the other person and the disregard constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care which a reasonable person would exercise in the situation”?

“This is very big,” said Justin Miller, a lawyer representing the family in a related lawsuit. According to Mr. Miller, who is also Imani’s cousin, the murder charges are the first ever brought against coaches accused of negligence.

It is “very big,” but is it right? The coaches walked with Bell, encouraged her, gave her water, not because they harbored an “an abandoned and malignant heart,” but because they were trying to be good and decent coaches. They just did it wrong and made a tragic mistake. These were not bad people, evil people for whom punishment was demanded, but two coaches who failed to sufficiently take into the outside possibility that harm would come to Bell.

But is the murder charge “serious,” or just a manipulation tool to get the coaches to plead out to lesser offenses?

Jessica Gabel Cino, a law professor at Georgia State University, suggested that the murder charges might be intended to encourage a plea deal. “A murder charge strapped on to a child endangerment/abuse charge isn’t obviously inappropriate,” she wrote in an email. “But I do question whether the prosecution can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”

While the top charge of Murder 2 is obviously the most serious and carries the most harsh punishment, the same concerns apply to the lesser charges, still very much criminal. If the use of criminal prosecution cannot be justified for well-intended but negligent conduct by these coaches, the use of such an excessive charge as Murder 2 to compel them to cop a plea to a lesser is even less justifiable.

It’s understandable that the family feels that criminal prosecution is worthy here. They lost a child and they are devastated. What family wouldn’t want someone held accountable, even if it won’t bring a beloved child back?

Eric Bell, Imani’s father, called the charges a “bittersweet” development. “It doesn’t get any easier,” he said of his daughter’s death.

But the use of criminal laws to punish poor decisions, mistakes, because the outcome was particularly tragic is excessive and unjustified.

“Common sense not being common can literally kill your child,” Mr. Miller said at the news conference on Wednesday. “You have coaches that want to win more than take care of these children.”

Many things can “literally kill your child.” That is certainly tragic, but doesn’t make them criminal.

9 thoughts on “Probably Negligent, But Criminal? Coaches Indicted For Murder

  1. Chris Van Wagner

    Life is tragic, much of the time. The annals of civilization are a chronology of the eternal effort to make life less painful, less tragic, more comfortable. Nothing about criminal prosecution of an accident, of carelessness, of ignorance, achieves that goal. Nor will it redeem this young lady’s life. No true penological interest is served. Deterrence? That will arise from the incident itself, among all other local coaches and parents of players. Punishment? Nothing will ever punish these two apparently sensitive, encouraging coaches as much as the memory of their player’s death. Nothing. Protection of the community? Same answer as punishment – and one wonders, will these two accuseds ever even want to coach again? The further a prosecutor strays from core principles of mens rea, the more tragic is the criminalization of a tragedy born of carelessness, of lack of knowledge. This is either a poorly judged use of the incredible power of the DA or, one fears, the politically motivated abuse of the same. I object. Accidents happen, tragedies occur, but crimes are actively committed.

  2. Lee Keller King

    But the feelz, Scott the feelz! Think of the children! If only one life is saved by this prosecution, blah blah, blah.

    To paraphrase, something bad happened and something needs to be done. This is something, so it needs to be done.

    I wonder how many votes the district attorney thinks she will get for this prosecution come election day?

  3. John Barleycorn

    A murder charge here, a manslaughter charge there and pretty soon you are talking about real incentives….

    Juries are overrated anyway. Bring on the bench trial….

    P.S. such a pity that all the riffraff having coffee in musty back rooms serving on grand juries dont have some sort of resource to turn too…

  4. orthodoc

    I am still stuck in yesterday’s reductio ad absurdum mode (or glue sniffing, as the host suggests) but just reading the plain words, it seems that the prosecutor’s logic can be used to bring criminal charges for actions that should fall under the rubric of medical malpractice (thereby goring my ox).
    For example, if a surgeon were to nick the aorta with ‘reckless disregard for the safety’ of a child who then dies of hemorrhagic shock, the penalty might be 10 years, not $10 million
    We may be close to this already. After all, criminal law, not tort law, was applied to the behavior of ‘drug dealing’ physicians, criminally convicted because they dispensed narcotics despite performing “no meaningful physical examination or medical tests.” (That’s bad medicine, I will concede, but maybe no more than that).
    As much as it would be nice to see reforms based on justice–and not on how much you love or hate the parties involved, to paraphrase somebody’s tweet yesterday– I’d be happy for people to rail for change because the illogic of the Bell case, or the doctors’ case, stings people they love.

  5. RCJP

    As a youth soccer coach entering my 5th season, the prosecution doesn’t surprise me. The specific charge is bit of an eye-opener, but the fact they were charged does not.

    The training and endless fine print we have to sign off on make fairly clear there’s a “someone is gonna pay and you’re the someone” ambiance.

    That makes getting kids who spent the summer playing video games and drinking soda into shape to run around a field for 60 minutes challenging and personally risky.

  6. Turk

    But the legal remedy for that is a civil suit, which the family has brought.

    Not an easy case, by any means. It could easily fail based on assumption of risk for athletics. This is the GA version of the doctrine: A plaintiff can’t recover on a negligence claim if it is established that s/he, without coercion of circumstances, chooses a course of action with full knowledge of its danger and while exercising a free choice as to whether to engage in the act or not.

    Maybe they can show coercion, and then there would be an argument between the defendant claiming it was encouragement and the plaintiff claiming it was coercion.

    As to full knowledge of the danger, I think that at 16 one would be expected to know the danger of running in oppressive heat. But reasonable people may disagree on that.

    Tough case since the child can’t give her point of view. (But given the damages, I think most PI lawyers would take it.)

    Criminal case sounds dumb, dumb, dumb, and it makes me wonder if they did it because they thought, after interviewing witnesses, that a civil case might not succeed, and they proceeded under the “do something” theory.

    1. delurking

      “It could easily fail based on assumption of risk…”
      And rightly so. I am surprised by the general acceptance in the post and comments that we know enough facts to conclude that the coaches did something wrong. Every so often, athletes die while exercising. Usually, autopsies conclude it was heart failure. Usually, the athletes had no known heart condition (because they don’t test for them in young athletic people). From the article on the autopsy: “The report indicates that the primary cause of Imani’s death was due to a heart attack brought on by physical exertion in a high heat environment.” I’m sure the heat contributed, but the report at least leaves doubt about unknown underlying conditions.

      Please don’t deduce that I think we know enough to come to a conclusion. I’ve looked at three articles, seen two very different numbers on how hot it actually was that day, and two different descriptions of the district policy on exercising outside in the heat.

      1. SHG Post author

        Have I ever told you how much I enjoy it when one person goes down their own special rabbit hole and then someone else, even less capable of focus, follows?

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