Manual strangulation was the primary cause of death of Armando Frank, the 44-year-old Marksville man who died during an October 2017 struggle with Avoyelles Parish Sheriff’s deputies and a Marksville police officer, according to a forensic pathologist report that became public Friday as part of a federal lawsuit.
The report by Youngsville pathologist Christopher Tape labels the death a homicide for “medicolegal purposes,” noting that officers compromised Frank’s breathing for more than six minutes by placing him in neck holds and pressing him from behind. The report, which relies on an autopsy and body camera video, also notes that officers did not attempt any resuscitative measures.
While cardiovascular disease and obesity contributed to Frank’s death, they “should not be thought of as the primary cause of death as the decedent was alive (and well) prior to the police intervention and dead following, making the police intervention the likely intervening factor that led to his death,” Tape states in his report.
An Avoyelles Parish grand jury weighed negligent homicide charges against the law enforcement personnel, and in March declined to return any indictments.
Tape’s report is not included in the Sheriff’s Office’s investigation, the results of which were forwarded to District Attorney Charles Riddle on Jan. 18, two weeks before the date of Tape’s report. Asked if the Sheriff’s Office considered Tape’s report in any administrative review, Chief Deputy Steve Martel replied that “all facts of the case are considered.”
Martel said he did not know if Tape’s report was presented to the grand jury, or if Tape testified in person. Tape and Riddle did not respond to messages Monday.
“Every action of every individual involved that day was well documented,” Martel said. “All that information was provided to the district attorney in a case file for grand jury review.”
Law enforcement officers encountered Frank on Oct. 20 on his tractor in the Wal-Mart parking lot on State Highway 1, where they attempted to execute an arrest warrant. Frank denied the existence of a warrant and refused to get off his tractor, according to both the Sheriff’s Office report and Tape’s report.
The attorney who filed the civil rights lawsuit in federal district court in Alexandria on behalf of Frank’s family, Joseph Long, said Frank, who suffered from a psychiatric condition, had not previously been informed of the warrant.
“(Frank) didn’t know anything about it. He had never been served with an arrest warrant or summons,” Long said.
The lawsuit alleges civil rights violations by excessive force and seeks unspecified damages.
The outstanding warrant for simple criminal trespassing and attempted unauthorized entry into a dwelling stemmed from Frank’s dispute with his neighbors, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Disputes with other neighbors resulted in similar charges in 2016, but the District Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute and Frank received court-ordered treatment at VA hospital in Pineville.
As they tried to serve the latest warrant, sheriff’s deputies Brandon Spillman and Alexander Daniel, along with Marksville Police officer Kenneth Parnell, tried to force Frank from the tractor. Spillman, Daniel and Parnell are named defendants in the federal civil rights lawsuit. Attempts to reach all three on Monday were not successful. There were other law enforcement personnel on the scene, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Spillman wrote in a narrative report that Frank, who was six feet tall and weighed more than 270 pounds, was physically aggressive, and that Frank “suddenly raised his hand toward my face” while Spillman stood on the right wheel well of the tractor.
Parnell then deployed his stun gun, to little effect, and Frank “continued actively resisting by pulling away from law enforcement personnel, violently thrashing about and became even more actively aggressive by striking personnel,” Spillman wrote. As the struggle ensued, one of the other two officers again deployed a stun gun, but the shock hit Spillman instead of Frank.
Spillman wrote that Frank continued resisting after being forced off the tractor, and that he refused to comply with orders to stand to his feet.
“Law enforcement personnel appeared to continue struggling with Mr. Frank as they attempted to secure Mr. Frank in the back seat of Sergeant Daniel’s patrol vehicle,” Spillman wrote.
Tape’s review of body camera footage highlights several points at which Frank struggled to breathe — points that Spillman’s narrative and the Sheriff’s Office’s reports do not include. Louisiana State Police also investigated the incident, but State Police spokesman Scott Moreau referred all questions to the Sheriff’s Office, which he said is the lead agency in the investigation.
Spillman’s neck hold on Frank was temporarily interrupted by the errant stun gun strike, Tape notes, at which point Frank could be heard breathing heavily. The struggle continued once Frank was off the tractor, with Frank coughing as he was pressed onto the tractor from behind, according to Tape’s report.
Less than half a minute later, Frank “can be heard to be coughing and gasping,” Tape wrote, and law enforcement continued pressing him against the tractor for another 78 seconds. During this time, Frank said “let me up” three times “in an increasingly deep and strained voice,” Tape wrote, adding that this was Frank’s “last verbal communication.”
Spillman’s narrative says “Frank continued to resist and would not comply” with orders to stand up after being handcuffed on the ground. The Sheriff’s Office investigative report says Frank “appeared to be passively resisting,” based on the statements of a captain on the scene.
Frank was speaking, but the captain “was unable to determine what was said,” the investigative report states. Another Sheriff’s Office employee, a detective, stated he didn’t observe “any kind of force used by anyone that should have caused death or was excessive.” Frank’s shallow breathing was first noticed after he was placed in the patrol vehicle, and paramedics were called, according to the report.
Tape’s report, meanwhile, says Frank was “unresponsive with no movements” after being handcuffed, and someone is heard saying Frank was “dead weighting.” The video ends more than three minutes later with no EMS on scene, and “no apparent attempt to secure the airway or apply rescue breathing or other resuscitative measures,” according to Tape’s report.