Autopsy unclear if Detroit teen's drowning was foul play

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

The official cause of death for a 15-year-old Detroit high school student found in the bottom of a Mumford High School pool is drowning, but county medical officials were unable to determine if the Feb. 24 death was accidental or the result of foul play.

An autopsy report by the Wayne County Medical Examiner's Office for Da'Sean Blanding, released Monday by his mother's attorney, also found the learning disabled teen had injuries to his face and head that match the grate the runs along the outside of the pool.

Da'Sean Lamar Blanding

Leigh Hlavaty, deputy chief medical examiner for Wayne County, conducted the autopsy on Feb. 25 and wrote in the report that Da'Sean had abrasions on his forehead and brow and that bruising on the underside of his scalp indicated he was alive when his head struck the pool grate.

"This injury is more consistent with the decedent tripping before going into the water or being pushed or 'dropped' into the water," Hlavaty wrote. The injuries on his face did not cause his death, the report said.

Hlavaty also found injuries on Da'Sean's body "which could represent him being pushed into the water" or could represent his back striking the edge of the pool as he was pulled out.

The autopsy report says the investigation into Da'Sean's death revealed there were six students at the pool the day the teen died and some admitted to horseplay, including dunking each other in the pool, but they say Da'Sean, who was wearing short sleeves and shorts that day, did not participate.

Da'Sean's mother, Christina Blanding, alleges her son was bullied and beaten before he was forced into the water while his teacher left the class unsupervised.

Students told investigators they noticed Da'Sean in the bottom of the pool at the end of class. The report says the teens were left unsupervised in the pool for a portion of the class. They found Da'Sean near the shallow end and notified their teacher, who pulled him from the pool.

Hlavaty estimates Da'Sean was under water for 30 minutes before he was pulled out. Hlavaty said because the autopsy findings do not fit the known circumstances of Da'Sean's death, his manner of death is indeterminate.

Attorney Johnny Hawkins, who represents Christina Blanding, Da'Sean's mother, said his client is entitled to a more detailed criminal investigation by the Detroit Police Department.

"Da’Sean’s death is nothing less than atrocious and extremely heartbreaking," Hawkins said in an email.

Kareem Sigler, the swim teacher supervising Blanding and other Mumford students, was terminated by the school district. Sigler is appealing his termination.

Sigler's attorney Anthony Adams says he disputes several statements in the autopsy report as being "unsubstantiated by records we have in our possession."

Adams said there were at least 30 students in the class that day, not six, and there is no way Da'Sean could have been in the water for 30 minutes based on time-line records he has.

"Clearly, there has been a rush to judgment here," Adams said Monday.

On March 19, Detroit police announced they were seeking a warrant in Da'Sean's death, but no one has been charged.

Maria Miller, spokeswoman for the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, said Monday the warrant request was returned to the Detroit Police Department for additional investigation on March 27.

Detroit police Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood said Monday the department is looking into the case further, based on the warrant request return by prosecutors. 

On Tuesday, the superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District, Nikolai Vitti, said he awaits the findings of police department and is continuing an internal review of the incident to determine if any students or staff beyond the teacher were involved or responsible for the incident.

"If DPD finds that foul play by DPSCD students or staff occurred and/or if our administrative review shows that students or staff were involved in the incident beyond the swim teacher, then we will move swiftly to take action under the student code of conduct and employee work rules and policies," Vitti said.