Outrage Over the Death in Police Custody

This is a partial transcript from "On the Record," Oct. 14, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST: Now to Wisconsin where a small community is outraged about the death of a 20-year-old man in police custody. Matthew Sheridan suffocated after police put a vinyl biohazard bag over his head in June of this year. Police say the hood was mistaken for a transport hood that is used to protect officers from spitting and biting. No charges have been filed against the police officer.

You decide. Here is part of the audio of the arrest and then his death.


MATTHEW SHERIDEN: I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you couldn’t breathe, you wouldn’t be able to talk, son.

SHERIDEN: I can’t breathe. I’m having — I got asthma. I can’t breathe.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where’s your inhaler?

SHERIDEN: I don’t know! I can’t breathe!


VAN SUSTEREN: Joining us from Milwaukee is an attorney Merrick Domnitz for Matthew Sheridan’s family and estate.

Rick, first of all, why it that your client happened to be in custody in June of this year?

MERRICK DOMNITZ, ATTNY. FOR SHERIDEN FAMILY: He was a passenger in a car that was inappropriately reported to have driven off without paying for gas at a local gas station. The car was stopped on the basis of a radio call that went out, indicating the gas theft. Which of course, turned out to be totally erroneous.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. Now, there has been a public investigation. What are the facts that have been established publicly as to what happened?

DOMNITZ: Well, there was a coroner’s inquest that was held by the district attorney in Ozawkie County. And all of the police officers that were involved in the stop and the action involving the hood were all questioned, and testified at the inquest. And essentially they detailed the stop, at which Matthew was handcuffed. His legs were tethered.

And then because he was picked up off the ground, after being face down, held face down by four officers in the grass, they picked him up and he had grass residues in his mouth. He was spitting the grass residue out of his mouth. And one of the Mequon officers decided that they would use what he thought was — what he called a transport hood, which was a spit guard kind of hood. He went to the trunk of his squad car, but it wasn’t his usual squad car. And found a foiled bag, a sealed foil bag that contained a biohazard hood that was meant to be used by police officers, in the event that they encountered toxic materials so that they could breathe clean air.

He opened up the foil packet without reading any of the instructions and without ever having received any training on the use of the hood, walked up to Matthew from behind and put it over his head. Never put the mouthpiece in his mouth. Never pinched his nose with the nose pinch. And put him in the back seat of the car. And you’ve heard the tape of what Matthew’s reaction was when the hood went on.

VAN SUSTEREN: Rick, in this inquest, what did the officer say as to why he didn’t remove the hood when he kept saying, "I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe," and the police officer said, Son, if you can talk, you can breathe? I mean what did he do at that point?

DOMNITZ: Well, what the Mequon police officer — the one that put the hood on — said at the inquest that he didn’t react to Matthew saying "I can’t breath, I can’t breathe" because the officer that you hear on the tape saying, "If you couldn’t breathe, you wouldn’t be able to talk" like that or yell like that is a Bayside police officer, who was a trained EMT. And the Mequon officer said since officer McWilliams said if you wouldn’t be able to breathe you wouldn’t be able to talk like that, he assumed that that was correct.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right.

DOMNITZ: He put Matthew in the back of the car and drove off.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. Rick, thank you very much. And keep us posted on the case. Thank you, Rick.

DOMNITZ: Happy to. Thank you.

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