Three years ago, a Tennessee man made a wrong turn and ended up lost in rural Missouri. The man, Tory Sanders, sought help from local law enforcement — only to end up dead in a Mississippi County jail cell eight hours later.
Sanders, who was black, had been tased repeatedly. Pepper spray had been blasted into his cell. In an altercation just before his death, a barrage of officers rushed into his cell and tackled him in what became a dogpile. Two top jail officials reportedly pressed down on his neck for more than three minutes even as a colleague urged them repeatedly to ease up, according to a lawsuit later filed by Sanders’ family. They didn’t listen until after Sanders passed out.
Then-Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley declined to prosecute anyone for those actions. He cited “excited delirium” in the 28-year-old’s death.
But the Missouri NAACP and the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus are now urging Hawley’s successor, Attorney General Eric Schmitt, to reopen the case. They hope to use the attention around the recent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis to bring new attention to a death that’s long troubled them.
On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Missouri NAACP President Nimrod Chapel Jr. explained that Floyd’s death “instantly” reminded him of the 2017 incident that killed Sanders.
“They are so similar,” he said. “Floyd and Sanders both died with law enforcement’s knee literally on their neck. The only difference was Floyd was in the middle of the street, and Mr. Sanders was in a jail cell.”
Ironically, Chapel noted, Sanders wasn’t in that jail because he was facing criminal charges. He was in jail on what’s called a “protective hold,” with the idea that he might be a danger to himself.
“He had gone out for a drive that night ostensibly to clear his head,” Chapel explained. “Runs out of gas that night, and his life was forever changed by his interaction with law enforcement.”
Chapel had previously pushed Hawley to bring criminal charges against Sanders’ assailants. He acknowledged that he was disappointed that Hawley — who soon left the AG’s office to become a U.S. Senator — failed to do so.
“This is what was really troubling to me. The NAACP was way up in arms. This was a death in jail where the person wasn’t even in custody — protective custody, but they weren’t under arrest. And it was unexplained.
“Gov. Greitens at the time promised that there was going to be transparency, that we would get a full copy of the investigation that was being conducted by the highway patrol, and we got the same promise out of Hawley’s office,” Chapel continued. “But the interesting thing was, we got a promise of justice, as did the family. And then ultimately [they] just dropped it like it was a hot potato, with no explanation. We never got a piece of paper regarding the investigation. .. Attorney General Hawley at the time did not prosecute.”
Hawley’s office had previously brought criminal charges against Mississippi County Sheriff Cory Hutcheson for illegally surveilling a political opponent. Those charges were pending when Hutcheson led eight other officers into Sanders’ jail cell for what proved to be a fatal confrontation.
In a statement, Hawley’s office referenced those charges against Hutcheson, which pre-dated Sanders’ time in Mississippi County:
“As Attorney General, Senator Hawley went to court to have the sheriff removed from office, stripped of his badge, charged with state and federal crimes, and sent to prison. Senator Hawley supports any further prosecutorial action the evidence will support.”
The NAACP’s efforts to reopen the investigation into Sanders’ death have received support from the Missouri Black Legislative Caucus. Chapel said he met last week with Hawley’s successor, Schmitt. He remains hopeful that the case could see new scrutiny.
The conversation also included remarks from journalist Doyle Murphy. As a staff writer at the Riverfront Times, Murphy wrote the definitive story about Sanders’ tragic sojourn to Missouri.
He said the case has long troubled him, to the point that he sought to interest other media outlets in covering it. But the remote location in Missouri’s Bootheel seemed to be a strike against it for other journalists, as did the fact that, in 2017, the death of a black man after law enforcement pushed down on his neck didn’t have the same resonance.
“That was before people really looked at, 'Here’s a case where people pushed down on someone’s neck,'” Murphy recalled. “At the time, no one was really paying attention.”
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
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