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A Death in Cleveland BY LOUIS DUBOSE Cleveland AFTER JUSTICE of the Peace Charlie Morgan had read the summary of a medical examiner’s report confirming that 30-year-old Kenneth Earl Simpson had died a violent death by asphyxiation in a Cleveland jail cell, a woman standing in the crowd of 120 asked a question. “Since this is your home too, how do you feel personally about it?” the women asked the justice of the peace. “M’am, I don’t have any comment about that,” he said. The woman persisted. She didn’t want an official statement: “No, no, how do you feel personally about it? You can tell that.” “I can’t comment about that,” Morgan said. There was, in this exchange, as much pathos as there was tragedy in the case of the 30-year-old informant who died in police custody after being accused of taking a borrowed ball point pen from the Cleveland police station on March 16. For here was Charlie Morgan, by all accounts a good and decent justice of the peace, doing his best to avoid any public statement that might further incriminate the officers involved in the detention and death of Kenneth Simpson, a young black man. Yet in his attempt to avoid the appearance of a premature indictment of the officers, Morgan was unable to publicly express even the smallest sense of commiseration with the black community that he serves. There was nothing terribly plaintive in the women’s voice. Yet the way that she framed her question suggested a plea that someone, some official representative of the city’s white community, at least share in the black community’s sense of tragedy. And by the time Police Chief Harley Lovings said, “I feel real bad. And I know I’m white and I understand that, but I feel bad about this,” it was too late. And Lovings was not the man that they wanted to share in their collective grief. For a protracted five days, between Simpson’s death and Morgan’s press conference, this racially divided town of 6,000 had awaited the results of Harris County Medical Examiner Joseph Jachimczyk’s autopsy. Leaders of the black community publicly speculated on how Simpson died, lying face down in handcuffs and shackles on the cement floor of a jail cell. The town’s 1,000-watt, six-to-ten, AM radio station Kenneth Earl Simpson broadcast interviews with members of the Simpson family. Working a cash register, Cleveland Mayor Richard Boyett fielded telephone questions from the press and queries from local, and almost entirely white, patrons at Boyett’s Cafe on the far southwest edge of the city. When Police Chief Lovings entered the cafe, on the morning of the press conference, the Mayor moved from the counter. “Heard anything?” Boyett asked. The police chief shook his head and walked slowly toward the office where the two men huddled over coffee and breakfast. By midafternoon the question with which the town had lived for five days was answered. “I have in my hand the pathological diagnosis of the body of Kenneth Earl Simpson” Morgan told the press and some 80 spectators packed into a courtroom designed to accommodate 30. Another 30 pushed against the double doors at the back of the room. “Dated March 16, 1988, from the office of the Medical Examiner of Harris County, I read from the medical examiner’s report: ‘It is my opinion that the decedent, Kenneth Earl Simpson, came to his death as a result of asphyxia due to trauma to the neck. The medical examiner fixed the time of death at around midnight.” For the Cleveland Mayor and police chief, the medical examiner’s report was as bad as it could possibly have been. Since the morning following Simpson’s death, Chief of Police Lovings had stood by his officer’s account: Simpson had been restrained, handcuffed, shackled and strip-searched, then lain on the floor at approximately 11 p.m. on the night of his arrest. Officers had made three or four periodic checks of the prisoner and determined that he was in no danger. It was not until 4:30 a.m., when they discovered that Simpson had no pulse, that they summoned the justice of the peace who pronounced him dead and ordered an autopsy. Morgan’s statement that the trauma to Simpson’s neck was caused by hands the judge placed his hands on his own throat as he spoke refuted the official account which held that no officer placed his hands on or near Simpson’s throat. Only the suspension with pay of seven officers, more than half of the city’s police force, on the afternoon before the release of the pathologist’s report suggested that the story might not be holding up. Or that the police chief and Mayor felt that they had to do something to lessen the growing tension in the black community. FROM THE BEGINNING, there was something bizarre about the story of Kenneth Simpson’s death in a Cleveland jail cell. Simpson was hardly an exemplar in the community. The unemployed construction worker was a known drug user and some speculated that he was also a local supplier of drugs. The autopsy report disclosed non-lethal levels of cocaine and marijuana in his body at the time of his death. He had been in and out of trouble with the law for years. Ten years ago, two Cleveland police officers were dismissed after they sprayed Simpson with mace while he was locked in a jail cell. Recently, according to Liberty County Sheriff Sonny Applebee, Simpson had participated in an undercover investigation of drug dealing in the county. But Applebee would not discuss the nature of Simpson’s role and claimed that he could not remember when Simpson was last in contact with the sheriff’s office. At the time of his death, Simpson faced charges of possession of a controlled substance and friends claim that he had made it known that he would not go to jail without dragging a lot of others with him. “He knew enough to blow the lid off the whole county,” said THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7