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Harper Woods jail inmate died of heart issue, possible seizure, autopsy report says

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

Priscilla Slater, the African American woman found dead in a Harper Woods police lockup in June, died of an undetermined cardiac problem and may have suffered from a seizure in her jail cell, according to the Wayne County autopsy report.

The death of Slater has spurred protests in Harper Woods and prompted the firing last week of two Harper Woods police officers by city officials for the alleged concealment and manipulation of evidence. The Michigan State Police is leading an investigation into the incident.

Priscilla Slater

"It is my opinion that death was caused by cardiac dysrhythmia of undetermined etiology," Assistant Wayne County Medical Examiner Dr. Teresa Nguyen wrote in the June 11 autopsy report obtained by The Detroit News in an open records request.

The manner of Slater's death was natural, according to the autopsy report.

An exam revealed no significant evidence of injury to the 37-year-old Slater, but a postmortem toxicology test of the peripheral blood and liver tissue was positive for "caffeine, cotinine (nicotine metabolite), and products of marijuana use," according to the report.

This means the deceased had smoked or used marijuana products sometime before being arrested on June 9 and dying on June 10 .

At 5:10 a.m. on June, Slater was "supine with clenched fists," her arms were drawn toward the middle of her body and her feet were pointed away from her body "for approximately three minutes," Nyugen wrote after reviewing jail cell video and police records. She was pronounced dead nearly 10 hours later at 2:55 p.m., according to the report.

"This ictal posturing is consistent with a terminal seizure," the assistant medical examiner wrote. "The decedent had no known history of seizure disorder. A terminal seizure often occurs after an agonal event" — extreme suffering or death-related event. 

Attorney Geoffrey Fieger said last week that Harper Woods police allowed Slater to suffer for "hours and hours" and later concealed and destroyed evidence. Fieger is representing Slater's family.

Officers responded on June 9 to a report of shots being fired and arrested Slater at the Parkcrest Inn. She was later found dead in her holding cell at a police precinct. Authorities have released few details about her death or arrest.

The autopsy report "makes clear that Slater did not ingest any drugs," Fieger said Tuesday, and it raises the question of what was going on with Slater between 5 a.m. and 2:55 p.m., when she was declared dead.

"She was abandoned or ignored for more than nine hours," he said. "It's absolutely incredible to me. She got no care for almost nine hours."

The firings of two officers fired as part of the investigation into Slater's death indicate that the officers "manipulated or falsified" evidence" in the case, Fieger said. "They did something wrong" because they knew they had engaged in wrongdoing, he argued.

At last week's news conference, Fieger said the evidence "may have something to do with the positioning of her body ... with the condition of her body."

The Harper Woods city manager said last week Deputy Chief John Vorgitch and patrol officer Michael Pineau were fired in connection with a probe into Slater's death.

"Unfortunately, our city has discovered that members of its Police Department attempted to conceal and manipulate evidence in the 'in custody death investigation'" Priscilla Slater," acting City Manager John Szymanski said.

Protesters make their way to the Harper Woods Police Department during the march for Priscilla Slater in Harper Woods on July 24, 2020.

Slater's death led to multiple protests in the city. The wife of the then-Mayor Kenneth Poynter was accused of destroying the sign of a demonstrator, and she apologized later for the incident.

Poynter, upset about a protest outside his home, last month reportedly told community activists and city leaders during a meeting that "I understand why white people would become white supremacists,” angering from civil rights activists and some residents. The mayor resigned last month. 

bwilliams@detroitnews.com