Lawsuit claims excessive force by first responders in Richmond man’s death

Published: Dec. 31, 2021 at 7:07 PM EST
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - A central Virginia family is suing some workers of the Richmond Police Department and the Richmond Ambulance Authority after a 32-year-old man died in their custody following an incident at his own home.

Joshua Lawhon was forced to the ground after his roommate called 911, claiming he needed mental health treatment. When Lawhon said he did not need treatment, the situation escalated.

His loved ones say police body camera videos reveal excessive force that resulted in his death.

It happened back in 2018, but just last month, three judges decided the first responders, in this case, are not automatically protected against liability and suggested the civil case could move forward.

“It seems like it’s always there every day. It doesn’t go away,” Angie Lawhon said, referring to the death of her son. “He was an incredible kid.”

Angie Lawhon’s incredible kid had grown to become a 32-year-old man. Joshua Lawhon battled mental health challenges and took prescription medication to help him live a normal life, a life that included being a dad. She shared a photo of him with his now 11-year-old at an elementary school function some four years ago.

“That was the father-daughter dance,” the 11-year old said.

“You look happy in that picture,” NBC12 said.

“I was. I was happy to see all my friends at school and to be there with him,” she responded.

Those happy days are now a distant memory. Joshua’s life was cut short back in January of 2018 when Richmond Police and EMS workers showed up at his home on Stockton Avenue.

His roommate at the time said Joshua hurt his head and feared he may have been a danger to himself. When authorities arrived, he was bleeding. When first responders tried to take him to a mental hospital, Joshua told them he didn’t need to go. He told them he had fallen after taking too much of a medicine. Instead of leaving when asked, first responders forced him to the ground and handcuffed him.

“Four people pushing on his back while his hands are behind his back, and his abdomen is on the ground, and his face is on a pillow. That goes on for almost six minutes, and the results are predictable,” Attorney Jonathan Halperin said.

Joshua is heard saying, “I can’t breathe.”

“And then, there’s no movement,” Halperin said.

“I saw that when they turned him over, he was dead. I mean, you could see it in his eyes,” Lawhon added. “I wanted to jump through the video...I wanted to just scream. In my head, I was screaming, ‘turn him over, turn him over, start CPR, start CPR.’”

Joshua became unresponsive and died at a hospital two days later.

One of the Richmond Ambulance Authority workers who responded to the scene is no longer employed with the department, although it’s not clear whether that has anything to do with the case. One of the Richmond Police officers has since retired from the force.

Now, the family has filed a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against the first responders who showed up at the scene. Defense attorneys asked a judge to throw it out. They appealed when that judge refused.

Just last month, a three-judge panel with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals released an opinion, saying the 32-year-old “could not have posed any risk to the safety of the officers or others’’...”he did not actively resist or attempt to evade”...”continuing to apply force to a secured unarmed man constitutes excessive force.”

“He had done nothing illegal...We’re held to a standard where we can’t engage in conduct that’s dangerous to a police officer. They can engage in conduct that’s fatal to us, and in this instance, there’s been no accountability,” Halperin said.

“I said I could’ve saved him. If I would’ve been there, I could’ve saved him...They treated him as if he was not even human,” Lawhon said.

There have been no criminal charges in the case. When NBC12 reached out to the Commonwealth’s Attorney to ask why - she pointed to the fact that a different Commonwealth’s Attorney was at the helm back in 2018.

The Richmond Ambulance Authority says a person can deny medical treatment only if they are deemed to be competent. If not, the organization says there are several instances where restraint is necessary to accomplish that.

A representative at the Richmond Police Department said they are reviewing the department’s general orders and taking a close look at the body camera video as they continue to investigate what happened that day.

Copyright 2021 WWBT. All rights reserved.

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