Teen’s death in West Palm Beach
lockup raises questions about new law


State juvenile justice administrators have a tape of a dying teen
in custody in Palm Beach County. Two lockup workers have
been fired and several others suspended.


http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/07/14/2316519/teens-death-in-west-palm-beach.html
By Carol Marbin Miller
cmarbin@MiamiHerald.com

Two weeks after a controversial state law took effect making it
illegal for government agencies to make photos or recordings of
a death public, the statute will face its first test: state juvenile
justice administrators have a videotape that depicts the final
moments of an 18-year-old who died at a West Palm Beach
lockup hours after he became ill and psychotic.



Eric Perez died at the West Palm Beach juvenile detention center at 8:09 a.m. Sunday, a few hours after lockup
administrators moved the Port St. Lucie teen into a dining room so they could monitor his condition.

Samahdi Jones, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Juvenile Justice in Tallahassee, would not identify the
youth in an interview with The Miami Herald, but Perez’s mother confirmed she was told her son had died at the
lockup.

“They should have taken him to a hospital,” 47-year-old Maritza Perez said. “Just because he made mistakes doesn’t
mean they have the right to take his life away.”

Juvenile justice administrators will not discuss Perez’s death in detail. Jones said the agency has suspended four
lockup workers and fired two others while DJJ’s inspector general and the West Palm Beach police complete
investigations into the youth’s death. “The DJJ is conducting an intensive review of actions taken by department
personnel to determine whether policies and procedures were followed,” Jones said in the statement.

Jones declined to provide the names of any the workers, or the reasons for the terminations. The agency also
declined to provide The Herald copies of the workers’ termination letters.

Jones said DJJ heads are reviewing and redacting a videotape from the lockup for possible release under the state’s
public-records law at The Herald’s request. But she added that administrators are studying the newly state law to
determine whether it prohibits release of the recording. For the moment, Jones said, the video cannot be released
because it is part of ongoing investigations into the youth’s death.

DJJ Secretary Wansley Walters, who headed Miami’s juvenile assessment center before she was tapped to run the
state agency, said, “The sudden loss of this young man brings deep sadness to all of us at the DJJ. We offer our
heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones.”

Jones said agency heads do not yet know what caused Perez’s death.

The death marks the second time juvenile justice administrators have recorded events tied to the death of a
detained youth. In 2006, a grainy, poorly recorded video showed a 14-year-old Panhandle boy being punched and
kneed by boot camp guards because he refused to follow orders to run a track. The video, which was played
endlessly on national television after DJJ released it in response to a lawsuit, led to sweeping changes in the way
delinquent youths are disciplined in Florida commitment centers and lockups.

The new law, sponsored by Rep. Rachel V. Burgin, a Riverview Republican, prohibits the release of photos, video
and audio recordings “that depict the killing of a person.” Violating the law, which took effect July 1, is a third-degree
felony.

The law defines “killing of a person” broadly to mean “all acts or events that cause or otherwise relate to the death of
a human being, including any related acts or events immediately preceding or subsequent to the acts or events that
were the proximate cause of death.” The statute is similar to a measure passed in 2001 that banned the release of
autopsy photos in the wake of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt’s death.

The law does allow a surviving spouse or other relative to obtain a copy of such records, and Maritza Perez told The
Herald she favors the release of any recordings that shed light on how her son died if it would prevent “another kid
from having to go through what Eric did.”

“They took him from me,” Perez said. “I’ll do anything.”

Burgin said she drafted the bill last year after attending funerals for two Tampa police officers whose killings were
captured on the dashboard camera of a squad car during a routine traffic stop. Reporters were allowed to view the
recordings after a successful lawsuit, and Burgin said she felt the officers’ families had suffered enough without
“having to relive the death of their loved ones over and over.”

Eric’s mother may request the tape under the new law, Burgin said. “She just has to ask for it, and she can do
whatever she wants with it.”

Perez said she has been given conflicting reports by agency heads about her son’s final hours. She said she was
told Eric awoke early in the morning and appeared to be hallucinating, waving his arms frantically and screaming
“Get him off me!” Nearby youths sought help from lockup staff, who moved the teen and his mat from a dorm to a day
room so he could be more closely monitored. Eric vomited several times, Perez said she was told.

A few hours after Eric became ill, his condition worsened dramatically and lockup administrators called for an
ambulance, Perez said she was told. By the time emergency workers arrived, Eric was dead.

At first, Perez said, she was told Eric succumbed to breathing problems. Later, she was told he appeared to have
died from an enlarged heart. Then, she said, she was told he may have suffered a stroke.

“There was nothing wrong with my son,” Perez said. “He was a very athletic kid. He played football and basketball. He
wrestled with his brother. He was in perfect shape.”

“They should have taken him to the hospital or had a real doctor look at him,” Perez said. “Instead, they took it upon
themselves, and left my son on a mat in the dining room, dying.”

Eric Perez — who turned 18 eight days before his death and was scheduled for release a few days later — was
arrested on robbery charges, and would have been referred to the region’s delinquency drug court for treatment had
he not been on the cusp of adulthood.