It has been three months since Ethan died, and important questions are still unanswered. His death at age 26 has left his family and advocates across the country and around the world wondering: How did a young man with Down syndrome die over the cost of a movie ticket?
On January 12th, 2013, Ethan Saylor attended a showing of Zero Dark Thirty at the Regal Cinemas (at the Westview Promenade shopping center) in Frederick, Maryland with his personal care worker. When the movie ended, Ethan wanted to watch it again. He refused to leave, and a theater employee called security, saying that Ethan either needed to buy another ticket or be removed. Three off-duty Frederick County sheriff’s deputies moonlighting as mall security guards arrived and asked Ethan to leave the theater. When he refused to leave they grabbed him out of his seat, wrestled him to the ground and restrained him, face down, with three sets of handcuffs. Within minutes, Ethan suffocated and died.
His death has been ruled a homicide, yet an internal investigation by The Fredrick County Sheriff's Department found no wrongdoing. The officers responsible continue to work in law enforcement. A Frederick County Grand Jury heard the case in March and also decided that no crime had been committed, thereby rejecting criminal charges and ruling that no further investigation was necessary.
What's worse, Ethan Saylor was blamed for his own death: "The autopsy found that Saylor's developmental disability, obesity, atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease and a heart abnormality contributed to this death." Further, the autopsy report from the Maryland Medical Examiner claimed that anger issues and health problems made Ethan "susceptible to sudden death".
Ethan wasn’t armed. He wasn’t trying to rob the Federal Reserve. He resisted leaving a movie theater.
The situation never should have come to a place where he was hogtied, face down. Where was the common sense and compassion on the part of the theater personnel and the officers working mall security that night? Would it have been unreasonable to let Ethan sit in his chair until his caregiver returned? What threat did he pose by remaining in his seat longer? Was he not worth the time or the effort to be patient?
Ethan was frightened and resisted leaving--he cursed and kicked at the officers. He didn’t like to be touched, particularly by strangers (this is mentioned in many news articles on his case, and interestingly, it likely applies to a majority of people with and without a diagnosis of Down syndrome). The officers, who were not in their uniforms, physically removed him from his seat. No one knows how Ethan processed the encounter. But why wasn’t the goal to de-escalate the situation? Ethan’s mom was called to the theater, and was on her way there as Ethan was dying and calling out for her.
Ethan Saylor should never have died. How could this have happened?
It seems all too clear that Ethan's death (and the lack of justice in this case) is a horrible reality in a climate of deeply rooted and continuing prejudice toward people with intellectual disabilities. We live in a world that is running toward non-invasive prenatal testing for Down syndrome, hailing it as an important scientific advancement, without pause. We are screening out people with Down syndrome, and very few are asking, “What does this mean?”
Knowing firsthand the value of those with Down syndrome, family members and other advocates struggle to understand why it is necessary to explain that people with Down syndrome are people, and that fundamental human rights apply to all of us. We're passionate and dedicated to the cause, and yet we’re keenly and painfully aware of how much is stacked against us.
We fight prejudice and stereotypes about Down syndrome, because there is intense need to do so. Our society is laced with bias against those with the diagnosis and other developmental disabilities. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it has to be said: that bias is deadly.
To sweep Ethan Saylor’s death under the rug, or to blame Ethan or his Down syndrome for his death, is wrong. Without a more thorough investigation of the actions on the part of others that January night, we won’t know what really happened to Ethan and what can be done to ensure this never happens again.
It matters. We won’t forget.
*Last night, Down syndrome and human rights advocates took to Twitter to gain the attention of celebrities, media and the general public and ask for help in the push for #justiceforethan; and over 600 people from around the world attended an online vigil honoring Ethan’s life and offering support to his family. More activism is planned in the coming days and weeks. Please follow this link for ways to get involved and make your voice heard in the push for justice for Ethan, and please sign this petition, started by Ethan’s family, to demand an independent investigation into his death.
**For a deeper look at the Uncomfortable Truths surrounding the death of Ethan Saylor, please go here.