Gov. O’Malley’s Dereliction of Duty

Maryland governor Martin O’Malley is supposed to be a good Catholic boy. The 50 year-old Democrat and former Baltimore mayor was educated in Catholic schools and got his bachelor’s degree from the Catholic University of America. He appears on national political programs and states, “I’m a Catholic.” His official biography notes the name of his family’s parish and trumpets his belief “that Marylanders are bound together by ‘the common thread of human dignity.’” In his campaign materials, O’Malley is fond of emphasizing his concern for Maryland’s “most vulnerable citizens.”

When O’Malley announces the formation of a presidential exploratory committee, as he surely will sometime in the next 18 months, expect the media to draw a straight line between his unbreakable commitment to social justice and his Irish Catholic upbringing. Expect O’Malley’s stances on abortion, the HHS mandate, and same-sex marriage—so out of step with true Catholic teaching—to be presented as evidence of his Christ-like concern for the poor, the marginalized, and the defenseless.

Expect no one to mention the name Robert Ethan Saylor.

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In January, Saylor was killed by off-duty Frederick County Sheriff’s deputies after reentering a theater where he had just watched a screening of the film Zero Dark Thirty. The deputies approached Saylor, who had Down syndrome, at the request of theater employees who claimed that the 26 year-old hadn’t purchased a ticket for the second screening. Saylor’s aide warned both the theater management and the deputies that she was “having a little issue” with Saylor and that the best strategy would be to leave him alone to calm down.

“Please don’t touch him,” the aide said. “He will freak out.”

But they didn’t listen. The deputies dragged Saylor from his seat, threw him to the floor of the theater, and forcibly handcuffed him. Because of his size—Saylor weighed almost 300 pounds—the deputies needed three pairs of handcuffs to secure his hands. Witnesses reported seeing a deputy put his knee into Saylor’s lower back. At some point, Saylor stopped breathing. The deputies initiated CPR, but Saylor never regained consciousness.

SaylorWhat’s this got to do with Martin O’Malley? As the state’s chief executive, he has the power to order the Maryland attorney general to investigate what went wrong that night. And, something clearly went wrong.

The Maryland state medical examiner’s office ruled Saylor’s death a homicide, yet a Frederick County grand jury declined to file charges against the deputies, who have since returned to full duty. Many have questioned the integrity of the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office’s investigation of the actions of its own deputies. In an interview, Frederick Sheriff Charles A. Jenkins characterized Saylor’s death as “simply an unfortunate situation where this man had a medical emergency while being escorted out of the theater.”

But that runs contrary both to the medical examiner’s report, which said that Saylor’s death was a homicide resulting from asphyxia, and common sense, which holds that the likelihood of a medical emergency increases dramatically when a person is being body-slammed to the floor by a trio of sheriff’s deputies. Furthermore, reports have emerged that Saylor was well-known to local law enforcement for his fascination with police and his habit of calling 911, sometimes just to ask a question.

All of which raises obvious questions that an independent investigation could resolve. Had these deputies had previous encounters with Saylor? Were they properly trained to deal with someone with severe intellectual, physical, and emotional disabilities? Why were they so intent on removing Saylor from the theater? Why did they ignore his aide’s advice?

Despite these questions, and despite reports that the United States Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation into the case, the Catholic O’Malley—defender of Maryland’s most vulnerable citizens—has ignored all requests for a state-level investigation. Why?

“We’ve just wanted to find out exactly what happened,” Saylor’s father Ron told the Washington Post. “If everybody did everything by the book, as they say they did, things, I’m thinking, would have turned out differently.” A reasonable assumption given the facts that have so far been made public.

Recently, one of the national Down syndrome advocacy organizations urged supporters to e-mail O’Malley’s office and request that he look into claims that the Frederick County Sheriff handled the case improperly. E-mailers received a response stating that unless they had new information to offer about the events of that night, the state would not investigate Saylor’s death.

Something is fishy here. If O’Malley is interested in becoming the president of the United States, why is he making an enemy out of a national community of disability advocates by refusing requests for an investigation? If, as his campaign materials state, O’Malley’s sympathies are with the most vulnerable citizens of his state, how could he ignore the many local calls for an investigation—from Saylor’s family, from Maryland Down syndrome organizations, from state legislators, and from the editorial board of the Washington Post? If, as his official biography claims, O’Malley is a faithful Catholic, how can he stand by and do nothing when a truly vulnerable member of society has been killed at the hands of law enforcement for the “crime” of being disabled in public?

Maybe O’Malley views those calling for an investigation as pro-life zealots he is free to ignore. Maybe he has made a deal with Maryland’s law enforcement establishment and is reluctant to get on the wrong side of his political allies. Who knows? Obvious answers to these questions have not presented themselves and O’Malley has stayed silent.

But good Catholic boys are not supposed to stay silent in the face of injustice. Good Catholic boys are supposed to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves. Good Catholic boys are supposed to defend the defenseless. An independent investigation will not change what happened that night, but it may help sew up the fraying common thread of our human dignity.

And it may help to save the life of the next Robert Ethan Saylor.


  • Matthew Hennessey

    Matthew Hennessey is a writer from New Canaan, CT, and a graduate of Hunter College and Fordham University. You can follow him on Twitter @matthennessey.

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