District Attorney Jonathan W. Blodgett's Remarks On The Investigative Findings In The Arrest And Death Of Kenneth Howe.
On November 25, 2009 Kenneth Howe was a passenger in a vehicle that was stopped at a "sobriety checkpoint" on Route 114 in North Andover. After a struggle, Mr. Howe was placed under arrest and transported to State Police barracks in Andover for booking. Upon arrival, Mr. Howe appeared to be asleep and therefore had to be carried upstairs to the booking area by officers. When they got him to the booking area, the officers noticed that Mr. Howe had stopped breathing. They immediately initiated CPR and called for an ambulance. Mr. Howe was taken to Lawrence General Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 12:45 a.m. November 26, 2009.
The Office of the District Attorney is required by law to conduct investigations into all unattended or unnatural deaths in Essex County. In this case, we investigated the facts and circumstances to determine if the police involved in the vehicle stop and the subsequent arrest engaged in wrongdoing or excessive force.
High-ranking detectives in the Massachusetts State Police unit assigned to my office along with senior command staff not affiliated with Essex County were directed in this investigation by Assistant District Attorney Gerald Shea, a senior trial attorney with 25 years of experience in homicide investigations and prosecutions. The investigation included more than 70 interviews, including every identified civilian witness and every law enforcement officer present at the sobriety checkpoint, medical examiner's office personnel, and Mr. Howe's associates. In addition, the investigation included the death certificate, an inventory of what Mr. Howe had in his possession at the time of his arrest and a review of Mr. Howe's criminal history.
The evidence is clear that police had reason to approach and question Mr. Howe and did not use excessive force in their arrest despite Mr. Howe's strenuous resistance. The evidence shows that Mr. Howe did not comply with a single request from police to cooperate from the moment the vehicle he was in entered the checkpoint area. Not one witness interviewed said that they observed Mr. Howe being hit, punched, kicked or beaten by police. The medical evidence reveals that while Mr. Howe had injuries associated with a strenuous physical struggle, he did not have any associated with purposeful hitting, punching, kicking, or striking with an object. The medical evidence also shows that Mr. Howe suffered from a heart condition and high blood pressure that contributed to his death. Finally, Mr. Howe was in possession of 32 pills that were determined by analysis to contain Oxycodone for which he had no prescription and for which he could have been charged with a felony.
Based on the interviews with police and civilian witnesses, this is what happened: As the vehicle in which Mr. Howe was a passenger approached the checkpoint, officers from the Massachusetts State Police and the North Andover Police Department noted that Mr. Howe was not wearing a seatbelt and appeared to be trying to hide something. Based on these observations, an officer approached the vehicle at which time the officer noted a strong odor of marijuana through the open passenger window. The officer asked Mr. Howe what he was doing. He ignored the officer's question. He was asked to stop moving and show his hands. He did not. After being asked a second time to show his hands, he struck the officer in her chest and throat area. At this point, Mr. Howe began to struggle with the officer as she attempted to restrain him. He then forcefully opened the vehicle door, striking her and causing her to be thrown off balance. As he began to run, the officer grabbed onto his clothing and ordered him to get on the ground. He did not.
At this time, the officer called for help and other officers responded. One officer grabbed Howe around his shoulders and ordered him to "get on the ground, now." Instead Mr. Howe continued to wildly flail his arms. As Mr. Howe broke free from this officer's grasp, the officer fell to the ground and was kicked in the head by Mr. Howe. At the same time, a pit bull that had been in the back of the vehicle in which Howe was a passenger gained the attention of the officers because it was loose, barking, charging and running around.
As one officer caught and restrained the pit bull, Mr. Howe again broke free from two other officers. As another officer responded, he was confronted by Mr. Howe with his fists raised. This officer grabbed Mr. Howe's clothing and both men fell to the ground with Mr. Howe landing on his back with the officer's full weight landing on top of him. Mr. Howe then managed to roll onto his stomach as other officers arrived and held him.
Mr. Howe was still violently resisting and making grunting and growling noises. Officers continued to order him to relax, stop resisting and show his hands which he continued to ignore. He kept his hands under his chest as if he was hiding something. Throughout the struggle, Mr. Howe tightly clutched the pills in his right hand and tried to grind them into the dirt while officers attempted to handcuff him. Finally, Mr. Howe was cuffed and placed in a cruiser. Police then recovered the 32 pills Mr. Howe had in his possession.
After Mr. Howe was placed in the cruiser, he was observed by an officer to be breathing heavily consistent with having been in a physical struggle and his eyes were open. During the approximately 5 mile drive to police barracks Mr. Howe was heard breathing heavily and then snoring. Upon arrival, the officer heard Mr. Howe snoring as he secured his weapon and keys. The officer then attempted without success to wake Mr. Howe. After attempting unsuccessfully to carry Mr. Howe upstairs, the officer sought assistance. Two officers carried Mr. Howe upstairs to the booking area. Once in the booking area, the officer noted that Mr. Howe appeared to have stopped breathing but did still have a pulse. One officer called for an ambulance and another immediately started CPR. The ambulance transported Mr. Howe to Lawrence General Hospital where he was pronounced dead. Police then recovered an additional 149 prescription pills that analysis determined to contain Oxycodone.
The events surrounding Mr. Howe's arrest took place in view of a news photographer who was present and taking photographs. The photographer was interviewed as part of the investigation and was asked if, at any time, he saw a police officer strike, kick or beat Mr. Howe. He responded that he did not. The 43 photographs taken did not show any images of police striking, hitting or kicking Mr. Howe.
Mr. Howe's associates who were in the vehicle with him stated that Mr. Howe had just lit a marijuana cigarette as they approached the check point area, did not comply with the officer's request to show his hands and attempted to flee. They were asked if, at any time, they saw a police officer strike, kick or beat Mr. Howe. They responded that they did not.
I personally questioned Drs. Neilds and Springer, from the state medical examiners office, who performed the autopsy on Mr. Howe. I asked them if any of his injuries were caused by a baton or flashlight striking his body. They said no. I asked if they were any injuries consistent with being kicked or beaten. They said there were not. Dr. Springer added that no "purposeful" injuries were observed on Mr. Howe's body.
In summary, the unfortunate death of Mr. Howe was caused by a strenuous struggle between Mr. Howe and law enforcement officers. This struggle continued as a direct result of Mr. Howe's failure to comply with law enforcement's requests for cooperation. Officers did respond to Mr. Howe's resistance with appropriate force in order to restrain him. Mr. Howe was in possession of a sufficient amount of drugs to warrant a felony charge and therefore had reason to flee from police. Finally, all other witness statements from Mr. Howe's own friends, a news photographer, and law enforcement officers, consistently state that no one ever saw anyone strike, kick, punch or beat Mr. Howe. The medical evidence supports these statements in that all of Mr. Howe's injuries were consistent with a struggle and not with a purposeful act. As a result of this thorough and objective review of the facts, I find no probable cause that there was an unlawful arrest or excessive force on the part of the police personnel involved in Mr. Howe's arrest and transport. Therefore, no criminal charges are warranted in this case.
This concludes our investigation. I realize that a death of a person in police custody merits additional scrutiny and for this reason, the entire investigative file is available to credentialed media for examination.