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AG may be asked to review 2014 Northland Mall death in light of George Floyd case

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

The Michigan Attorney General’s Office may be asked to review a 2014 incident in which a Ferndale man died during an altercation with mall security guards — a case with similarities to last month's death of George Floyd.

McKenzie Cochrane, 25, died from position compression asphyxia on the floor of the Northland Shopping Mall in Southfield on Jan. 28, 2014. Cochrane, an African-American, was asked to leave the mall, which closed in 2015, after an employee reported he had acting suspiciously inside and outside a jewelry store.

At a 2014 news conference, Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper explains how mall security guards struggled with McKenzie Cochrane.

In a subsequent struggle with guards, Cochrane was pepper sprayed and pinned to the floor during which he could be heard gasping, “I’m not resisting — I can’t breathe.”

His final words were nearly identical to those of Floyd, who died May 25 after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd's throat for more than eight minutes, noted Gerald Thurswell, an attorney who represented Cochrane’s family in a civil case ultimately settled out of court.

“George Floyd was almost word for word for what happened here six years ago,” said Thurswell. “Except no one was charged with anything here. I talked with his family and they are hurting, reliving his death over again. It's very hard on them.”

Four Minneapolis officers have been charged in Floyd's death.

Southfield Police Chief Elvin Barren said Tuesday he has spoken with an attorney for Cochrane’s family but the family would have to make a direct request to reopen the case. Barren said he tried to call a family member but had not heard back as of Tuesday afternoon.

“I would need to hear from a family member — not their attorney — that they want it reviewed,” said Barren. “If I have that conversation, I would ask the state Attorney General’s Office to review it for possible charges.”

In September 2014, Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper said there was no crime because there was no intention to kill and no chokeholds by guards. The Oakland County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Cochrane's death was an accident.

Thurswell said that hardly makes sense.

“If a drunk driver hits and kills someone, there are going to be some kind of charge — that is negligence,” he said. 

Thurswell said a cellphone video shows Cochrane was pinned on the floor by three security guards, with one guard’s knee to his back.

“He could be heard saying he couldn’t breathe and was dying and asked that someone call 911,” the attorney said. “One of the guards told him, ‘If you can talk, you can breathe.’”

Southfield police were called by the mall guards but given wrong directions to where the incident occurred inside the mall, Thurswell said. When police arrived, Cochrane was seated on the floor, handcuffed to a pillar. He was dead.

“They were security guards and not trained like police officers but they have many of the same powers,” Thurswell said. “But they acted improperly. They acted as judge, jury and executioners.” 

Cochrane’s family did not return a call for comment Tuesday. A month after the death, how Cochrane’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Oakland Circuit Court seeking more than $800 million in damages from the mall, two related corporations and security officers.

The civil complaint was ultimately settled out of court. Thurswell declined to provide details, stating there was a non-disclosure agreement forbidding any discussion of the complaint.

Cooper did not return calls for comment Tuesday but provided a statement that, in part, said she and then-Southfield Police Chief Eric Hawkins “spent a lot of time together speaking with community leaders” before a September 2014 press conference announcing there would be no charges in Cochrane’s death.

“… we consulted with experts recommended by the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., under the Obama Administration … I certainly would have charged if I could have,” Cooper’s statement said.

According to social media posts, Michigan Liberation, a statewide nonprofit organization seeking reform within the criminal justice system, plans a “prosecutorial accountability rally” outside Cooper’s office on Thursday. According to the rally notice, “in this heightened era of attention on the criminal legal system and police violence on black communities we are calling for policies that will end the separation of families, violence against people of color.”


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