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No accounting for police custody homicide

Published February 08. 2012 4:00AM

It has been a week since the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General announced the startling and troubling news that a grand jury in that state declined to return any indictments against Westerly police officers in the apparent beating death of Ryan O'Loughlin of Mystic.

More alarming was this statement released by the attorney general's office: "The Statewide Grand Jury found that the actions of the officers were legally justified."

A 34-year-old man dies of internal injuries a few hours after his release from police custody. The Connecticut Office of the Chief Medical Examiner later determines the death to be a homicide, due to "blunt abdominal trauma." According to the autopsy, Mr. O'Loughlin sustained 12 separate injuries to his head, chest, abdomen and legs, and a lacerated liver that caused him to bleed to death.

Yet a grand jury concludes the actions of the officers during Mr. O'Loughlin's arrest and incarceration were legally justified?

In the week that has passed no one has attempted to provide an explanation how that is possible. Westerly police have offered no plausible account since Mr. O'Loughlin's death last June. Westerly town officials apparently feel no explanation is necessary.

"It is now clear that those officers were doing their jobs in accordance with their training and we are grateful that this matter has been closed," read a press release issued by Chief Edward St. Clair and Town Manager Steve Hartford.

If following police training leads to an outcome in which a man emerges from custody with injuries indicative of a severe beating, then everyone should have reason for concern. But we don't think that is the case. More likely, the grand jury just got it wrong. Unfortunately, we don't know why.

Because there was no indictment, the proceedings of the secret grand jury will remain sealed. The public does not know what evidence the state presented or how vigorously, what deference the jury may have given to the police officers or what elucidation allowed them to reach the conclusion of what amounts to a finding of justifiable homicide.

This is what is known. Police arrested Mr. O'Loughlin outside Perks & Corks on High Street in Westerly just before 1 a.m. on June 9 for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Police said Mr. O'Loughlin did not cooperate, struggling as police tried to handcuff him. Police at the time did not charge him with assaulting an officer, suggesting he defied their demands, but did not retaliate. When he resisted, officers said they pepper sprayed the Navy veteran and struck him about the legs with batons.

After a night in jail he appeared the next morning in court, posted bond, gained his release and returned to his home. That afternoon he began vomiting and his wife rushed him to Pequot Health Center, where he died 16 hours after his arrest. The autopsy would later reveal the seriousness of the internal injuries and lead to the determination of homicide.

And police may have had the wrong man. A witness said Mr. O'Loughlin was trying to talk with a troublesome patron who had punched holes in the restroom wall, urging him to pay for the damage. When police arrived the melee ensued, with officers reporting Mr. O'Loughlin swore at them.

The pending civil suit by the family against the department and the arresting officers may ultimately shed more light on what happened to Ryan O'Loughlin. But there will be no criminal accountability. It "just doesn't make any sense," said the O'Loughlin family attorney, Mark Dana.

On that count, we agree.

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