Two high school basketball coaches in Georgia have been charged with murder in connection with the death of a teenager who collapsed after running drills during a practice held in nearly 100-degree heat and later died.
On Wednesday morning, days before the second anniversary of the death of the teenager, 16-year-old Imani Bell, lawyers for the Bell family announced the charges in a news conference in Atlanta.
“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.
Eric Bell, Imani’s father, called the charges a “bittersweet” development. “It doesn’t get any easier,” he said of his daughter’s death.
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.”
Jessica Gabel Cino, a partner at a law firm in Atlanta, 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.”
Lawyers for Ms. Walker-Asekere or Mr. Broom Palmer could not immediately be reached on Wednesday. The Clayton County Public Schools declined to comment on the charges or on whether either coach was still employed by the district.
Imani was a junior at Elite Scholars Academy, around 20 miles south of Atlanta, on Aug. 13, 2019, when she was running up football stadium steps as part of a practice held in “extreme heat” and collapsed, according to a lawsuit filed in February by the girl’s parents.
The temperature at the time was approximately 98 degrees with a heat index temperature between 101 and 106 degrees, according to lawyers for the family. A heat advisory had been issued that day for Clayton County, they said.
An autopsy conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigations attributed her death to heatstroke caused by strenuous physical exertion in extreme temperatures, according to a statement from lawyers for the family. It found no pre-existing medical conditions, they said.
“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.”
The civil case differs somewhat in who it seeks to hold responsible for the lapses that led to Imani’s death. In addition to Ms. Walker-Asekere, the lawsuit names as defendants Jason Greenlee, the school’s athletic director; Shonda Shaw, the principal; and Phillip Ramsey and Ashley Baker, assistant principals. Mr. Broom Palmer is not named in the lawsuit.
In court documents, Ms. Walker-Asekere said that it was her first day as coach of the girls’ basketball team, and that she was relying on the direction of the athletic director and other academy personnel to conduct the conditioning activity.
“It was also Imani’s first day,” Mr. Miller said on Wednesday.