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Chief Medical Examiner May Have Mislabeled Black Man’s Cause of Death, Experts Say

Damien Cameron in a white tshirt and red hat
Mississippi Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Staci Turner ruled Damien Cameron’s cause of death as “undetermined” in 2021. Three national pathologists recently told The New York Times that Cameron’s cause of death should be labeled as homicide. Cameron is pictured. Photo courtesy Clorissa Wright

Three national pathologists say Mississippi’s chief medical examiner should have labeled the cause of death as homicide for Damien Cameron, a Black Braxton, Miss., resident whose mother alleges that two white Rankin County deputies knelt on his back for over 20 minutes, causing his death in July 2021.

Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Staci Turner said Damien Cameron’s cause of death was “undetermined” despite his body being swollen, bloody and bruised when it came to her office.

“Due to lack of access to information involving the circumstance of this death, the cause and manner of death are best classified as undetermined,” she wrote in the report.

Screenshots of Damien Cameron's autopsy
Mississippi State Medical Examiner Dr. Staci Turner said Damien Cameron’s cause of death was “undetermined” in his autopsy report, pictured. Photo courtesy Clorissa Wright

The Mississippi Free Press requested an interview with Turner but did not hear from her by press time.

The New York Times and Mississippi Today asked three pathologists to review Damien Cameron’s autopsy photos, hospital records, sheriff’s reports and eyewitness statements, and the experts determined that the officers probably killed the 29-year-old.

“There’s really nothing to be undetermined about,” Dr. Zhongxue Hua, chief of the forensic pathology division at Rutgers University, told The New York Times.

Damien Cameron’s mother, Monica Lee Cameron, said at a press conference on June 22, 2023, that she saw Deputy Hunter Elward chase her son around the family’s house and through the woods, tase him multiple times, wrestle him to the ground, and kneel on his back until Deputy Luke Stickman arrived and joined Elward. The pair handcuffed Damien Cameron and dragged him to the police car while he was barely breathing, his mother says.

“This person died of asphyxia because of neck compression,” Dr. Michael Baden, former New York City chief medical examiner who testified in the O.J. Simpson trial and who performed an autopsy of George Floyd, told The New York Times.

Graphic photo of Damien Cameron in a hospital bed
Damien Cameron, pictured here, lies bloody, bruised and swollen in a hospital on July 26, 2021. Photo courtesy Clorissa Wright

The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation’s July 25, 2022, incident report does not say that the officers knelt on Damien Cameron, however. The agency reported Elward’s account of the events: The officer was trying to arrest 29-year-old Damien Cameron when he “fled behind the house,” and the two “wrestled to the ground.” Then Elward said he tasered him as he ran inside the house, and they wrestled on the bedroom floor before Stickman arrived and “assisted handcuffing” Cameron, the statement continues.

The report says the officers put Cameron in the police car while they went inside the house to retrieve their taser and “other belongings.” When the officers got back to the car, he was “unresponsive,” so they performed CPR and called the paramedics, the report concludes. He died before the trauma team at the University of Mississippi Medical Center could treat him, his mother says.

“Damien was a good child … never done harm to anybody,” Monica Lee Cameron said at a press conference on June 22, 2023.

She said Elward and Stickman did not turn on their body cameras, so no footage of the arrest is available. Mississippi laws do not require officers to use body cameras.

The MBI investigates all officer-involved cases of violence against Mississippians.

“This investigation warrants no further Bureau activity and is close(d),” Donnell Feazell wrote in the MBI report on Sept. 30, 2021.

Monica Lee Cameron filed a lawsuit against Rankin County in 2022. A grand jury decided not to file charges against Elward and Stickman in October 2022.

Elward, along with five other officers, recently pleaded guilty to state and federal charges for the torture and beating of two Black men, Michael Jenkins and Eddie Terrell Parker, at their Braxton, Miss., residence in July 2021. Elward also shot Jenkins in the mouth with the intent to kill him, U.S. Attorney Darren LaMarca for the Southern District of Mississippi said at a press conference in Jackson, Miss., on Aug. 3, 2023.

The Rankin County Sheriff’s Department fired Elward and four deputies accused of participating in brutality against Jenkins and Parker, Sheriff Bryan Bailey said at a June 27, 2023, press conference. Richland police officer Joshua Hartfield was the sixth officer allegedly involved, and the Richland Police Department terminated him shortly afterward, Police Chief Nick McLendon said in a letter to the community on July 3.

Stickman’s employment status with the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department is presently unclear. The Mississippi Free Press requested an interview with Sheriff Bailey but did not hear back by press time.

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