Their son had been pronounced dead for nearly 12 hours before deputy constables came knocking on Barbara Coats and Ali Amron's front door.
Amron and Coats had spent the morning calling every hospital they could think of after learning that their 23-year-old son, Jamail Amron, had been taken away in an ambulance from a Burger King parking lot around 2 o'clock that morning.
Now the Harris County Precinct 4 deputies had perplexing news: Jamail had suffered a heart attack and died while drinking a cup of water on the curb.
Amron, refusing to believe it was true, drove to the Burger King that night and found Cindy Lansford, the manager on duty the night Jamail died. When Amron identified himself, asking, "Did you see what happened to my son?" Lansford began to cry.
She started from the beginning: how Jamail had called 911 for help but instead ended up in handcuffs, on the ground, and beaten. Once he went down he did not get back up.
“I said, oh my God, they never told us this stuff!” Amron recalled. “My son was killed—I felt it right away. That's when the journey started. I really started looking for answers. I started investigating this myself. I got the toxicology report, the paramedic report, the witness's report. I started reading, trying to understand what made sense. And it didn't add up.”
After a three-week trial and exhaustive testimony, a Harris County civil court jury in late April decided Amron and Coats should receive $11 million in the death of their son. A hearing on the final judgment in the wrongful death case is scheduled for May 19 in State District Court Judge Larry Weiman's court.
The case has been pending for five years after the couple, now divorced, sued Harris County, all the Precinct 4 deputies involved and the Cypress Creek paramedics who responded (the paramedics and all but one individual deputy were ultimately dismissed, but no one was ever charged in the case). During that time, Coats and Amron discovered that, had their son never called 911 for help—a call that resulted in what his attorneys say was false arrest, forced medical treatment, multiple injections of a powerful sedative, and a beating from deputies—he likely would still be alive today. The autopsy report found he had dark red-brown bruises and abrasions on his forehead, his right cheek, the right side of his nose, his left shoulder, his lower legs and his wrists.
“I had to look at my son in the casket—the makeup wouldn't cover it,” Coats said. “His face was mutilated. Seeing my son like that, I will never forget it.”
Around 1 a.m. on September 30, 2010, Jamail Amron called 911 from an emergency phone on the pool deck at his girlfriend's apartment complex. He had taken cocaine around midnight, but now had felt himself start to hyperventilate. According to the paramedics, when they arrived, parking in the Burger King lot adjacent to the apartment complex, they tried to persuade Jamail to let them treat him in the back of the ambulance; but Jamail appeared skeptical of them, telling the paramedics he had changed his mind. He apologized for bothering them, then walked over to the Burger King to ask for a cup of water.
Cindy Lansford, closing up shop, heard a knock on the drive-thru window. She told Jamail they were closed, but he said, “Please help me.” He just wanted some water because he didn't feel good, Lansford said in her deposition, and so Lansford said okay. “He very nicely took the drink of water and stepped back about three or four feet, and he asked me if I could watch him.” He sat down on the curb to drink it—and that's when Precinct 4 Deputy Brian Saintes came speeding into the lot. He stormed out of his patrol car and yelled at Jamail immediately, “If you try to hurt me, I will not hesitate to knock you the fuck out,” Lansford remembered.
“Those were the only words [Saintes] spoke and then he latched on the handcuffs,” Lansford said. “When he was latching on the last one, [Jamail] said, 'But I didn't do anything.'”
As Saintes yanked away Jamail in handcuffs, Jamail tried to yell out a phone number to Lansford, instructing her to call it, but she couldn't catch it. Coats believes now that her son was trying to contact her.
Lansford continued watching the scene from the drive-thru window, telling attorneys in the deposition that she couldn't believe her eyes. After Saintes had forced Jamail into the ambulance, minutes later, Lansford saw him bolt out of the back, still handcuffed, and run toward her. (Coats says her son has always had a serious fear of needles, and suspects he was refusing the treatment.) One of the deputies chased Jamail down, then slammed him onto the hood of the nearby patrol car—so hard that one deputy later asked Lansford for a toilet plunger to fix the dent.
Held in place by deputies as he tried to squirm out of their grasp, Jamail was injected with what turned out to be Midazolam, a drug the Cypress Creek paramedics said is used to treat “excited delirium.”
At that point, Lansford saw Jamail collapse to the ground. “He looked like he was dead, or in a coma,” she said. “He came to a dead stop.” Nevertheless, deputies began “kick-tapping” him, apparently to see if he would respond, Lansford said. Another deputy had his boot pressed on Jamail's leg—while another deputy, Kevin Vailes, pressed his boot on Jamail's nostrils and mouth, Lansford testified. Paramedics gave another injection. He did not wake up.
“I saw it and I can't get it off of my mind,” Lansford wrote in a sworn statement days later. “When I look out the drive-thru window, night or day, I remember it all over again.”
There is evidence that Jamail had vomited, said Bradford Gilde, the attorney Jamail's parents hired; according to the autopsy report, vegetable fibers were also found in his lungs. Gilde said it appeared that Jamail may have choked on his own vomit, while Vailes's boot covered his nose and mouth and suffocated him.
The jury apparently agreed, rejecting the medical examiner's ultimate conclusion that Jamail simply died of a cocaine overdose. They found Vailes 20 percent at fault, Harris County 60 percent at fault for failures in policy and training, and Jamail 20 percent at fault. (Then-Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hickman came in and told the jury that the deputies had acted “by the books.”)
“This wasn't just about a wrongful death,” Gilde said. “This was about your constitutional rights. It's about deficient policy, about how police interact with the public. The reality is that this is a systematic problem that started well before September 30, 2010.”
Harris County Attorney's Office First Assistant Robert Soard said the county will likely be appealing the judgment, saying that the county does not agree that the evidence proves Vailes or the county are at fault for his death. He would not elaborate as to why. On Tuesday, the county attorney's office received funding from Harris County Commissioners Court to hire private attorneys to help with the appeal.
Coats said she found the appeal insulting, and both she and Amron said they can't bear to think about sitting in court again, having to listen to the narrative of their son's death over and over while county attorneys repeat that Jamail just died of drugs, that deputies did nothing wrong, that Jamail was in a state of “excited delirium” and was making “guttural noises” and acting crazy and violent—while Lansford describes a polite customer who “just had a need.” One who was handcuffed and could not defend himself. Amron said he has found himself believing it's a bad idea to call 911 for help, for fear that the police will go after you. He says he has nightmares.
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“We as parents who lose loved ones, we need to look for answers," Amron said. "Parents should not accept the outcome of what [authorities] say. They really need to find the facts. If I did not have this motivation, I would not have gotten this far.”
At Coats's home, in Humble, photographs of Jamail decorate the walls: Jamail in his soccer uniform, Jamail with his high school diploma, Jamail at his youngest half-brother's christening, where Jamail was named his godfather. To Coats, the photographs are a constant reminder of a life cut short.
Coats and Amron say they don't want their son to be remembered the way the county has painted him: a drug abuser. They remember instead a son who had plans to finish college and become a mechanical engineer, a go-getter who began working at Jack-in-the-Box at age 16 and saved up money to buy his own car. He was always helpful, putting other people first, Coats said: When she went to pick up the funeral booklets at the copier business, an elderly woman recognized him as the young man who offered to pump her gas.
“Every day, I look up at his picture and I cry, because my baby should still be here,” Coats said. “He could have become anything.”