By Carolyn Bick
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
After listening to three days’ worth of testimony in the first week of an inquest into the 2018 death of 66-year-old Wangsheng Leng, jurors were dismissed on Wednesday, Jan. 31, to prepare to return the following week to receive instructions and begin deliberations to deliver their verdict.
Leng died of pneumonia in September 2018, about a month after an encounter with Issaquah Police Department (IPD) officers Michael Lucht and Kylen Whittom. It is this encounter—specifically, the way the officers treated Leng, while handcuffing him—that Leng’s wife, Liping Yang, believes ultimately resulted in Leng’s death. A jury ultimately sided with the officers in the civil case against them and the City of Issaquah, and a federal court denied the family’s motion for a new trial.
At the time of the encounter, Leng was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, which had begun in a noticeable way three years prior in 2015. Yang had been his caretaker for several years. During his stay in the hospital, it was discovered that Leng had a degenerative skeletal disease called diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis in his spinal column that may have made his spinal column, including his neck, less flexible and more prone to injury.
Lucht and Whittom had responded to a 911 domestic violence call from James Leming—a neighbor living in the same senior living complex as Leng and his wife—who told 911 dispatch that he could hear what sounded like a fight and things being thrown. He reported this from the vantage point of his own apartment, through the peephole.
While Leming told dispatch that he could also see four people in the apartment, when Lucht and Whittom arrived, they recalled only two people, Leng and Yang, within. They also said that the apartment was neat and nothing appeared to have been thrown around.
Lucht told the jury that when Yang answered the door, Leng was standing behind her and grabbing onto her shirt, pulling it up to expose her stomach and just under her breasts. He said that this was the first time in all his years as an officer he had seen this, which is why he remembered it. Neither Yang nor Leng spoke English, and neither Lucht nor Whittom spoke Mandarin Chinese, so the couple and the officers could not communicate with one another.
But Yang told the jury in a prerecorded, translated testimony that this was not true, and was “an insult” to her. She said she does not recall her husband touching her at all.
Yang explained that the situation Lucht and Whittom were responding to was simply her husband talking very loudly, because he was insisting on going outside and she was trying to stop him. She said that he had trouble controlling the volume of his voice sometimes, a symptom of his Alzheimer’s disease. She said that when the officer showed up, she was sitting quietly on the couch waiting for her husband to calm down.
When asked why she opened the door for the officers, Yang said that she was under the impression that that is what one was supposed to do, when officers came to the door. She said that she invited the officers in, but Whittom said he does not remember being invited in.
Both Lucht and Whittom said that they followed their training. Lucht said that given what he saw at the door, he acted on his best knowledge and training, when it came to domestic violence calls. Both officers also said that they followed procedure and ultimately chose the least forceful route, when handcuffing Leng, whom they said they brought to a couch in what Lucht termed “a slower shuffle,” to cuff him in a facedown kneeling position. Whittom said that cuffing a standing person is much more difficult than cuffing someone who is leaning against something, like a car or other surface. Both officers denied treating Leng roughly, but both Lucht and Whittom said that they remembered Leng exhibiting muscle tension, as they handled him. This all happened within the span of less than a couple minutes.
Yang tells a different story. She said she was trying to find a card that stated in English that Leng had Alzheimer’s disease, as the officers were handcuffing her husband. By the time she found the card, she said, “It was too late.”
“After he was handled by the police, he just went limp on the floor. … My husband just never stood up again. He was just lying on the floor the whole time. And when I saw him on the floor, I saw that he had tears in his eyes, but he just couldn’t express it verbally. When I called his name, he could still respond with ‘um,’ then he couldn’t say anything else. And his eyes were closed, and his facial complexion was yellowish, and white. I didn’t know how serious the injury was.”
When asked why she called his name, Yang responded, “Because I was afraid that he had already died.”
Lucht wrote in his original report that Leng went “limp,” but told the jury on Tuesday, Jan. 30, that he would not use that language today. He said instead that Leng simply stopped responding. Both Lucht and Whittom said that they made the decision to call medical personnel, after Yang found and showed them the card stating that Leng had Alzheimer’s disease. They did so as a matter of protocol, they said, not because they thought anything was wrong with Leng. Both officers told the jury that they brought Leng to a chair, and seated him, while waiting for medical personnel to arrive. They did not uncuff him, per policy, they said. The officers also reenacted the encounter for the jury.
While Leng died of aspiration pneumonia—meaning that, at some point during his hospital stay, a piece of food or liquid went into his airways and caused an infection—physicians treating him noted that he had severe blood pressure issues, following the encounter with Lucht and Whittom. Leng could not stay vertical for long periods of time without getting dizzy, which ultimately meant that he could not participate in physical therapy.
Yang said that prior to the encounter with Lucht and Whittom, she and her husband used to dance together and take long walks, and that he was active and helpful around the house, whenever he could be. Being dizzy when vertical was not usual for him.
Dr. Farshaad Bilimoria—then a fellow at the King County Medical Examiner’s Office who was the primary forensic pathologist on Leng’s case—told the jury that he matched via autopsy the timing of Leng’s injury to the encounter with police. However, whether Leng’s degenerative spinal condition played a major role in his injury remains a matter of dispute.
In 2018, the police department hired Dr. J. Matthew Lacy as a private consultant to review Leng’s death. Lacy, who serves as the current King County medical examiner, was then employed as the Snohomish County medical examiner, but performed the review as a private consultant for the department. Testifying on Monday, Jan. 29, Lacy told the jury that while Leng did suffer the injury, as a result of the handcuffing position extending his spine—in other words, tilting his head upwards—“without this condition, he would not have had the injury and would not have died when he did.”
Lacy said that it would not take much force to injure someone with Leng’s condition, and that he also did not see any other signs on Leng’s scans from the hospital where he was initially taken to indicate that he had suffered any further injury, such as a spinal fracture, dislocation, or bruising.
But Yang also hired an expert to look into her husband’s death. She hired Dr. Jonathan Arden, a forensic pathologist who has worked for 30 years in both the private and public sectors.
Arden said that Leng’s dizzy spells when vertical, following the encounter with Lucht and Whittom, were consistent with a spinal cord injury, and that there was no evidence to suggest he had such an injury prior to the encounter. If he had, Leng would not be walking around, Arden said.
Arden appeared to disagree with Lacy regarding the amount of force that would have needed to have been applied for Leng to have suffered injury to his neck.
“I cannot by looking at his injury, for instance, reenact exactly what happened or tell you exactly how many pounds of pressure somebody put on him—something like that. But I can tell you that for him to have sustained the cervical spinal cord injury, there had to be a substantial or significant degree of force applied to his neck,” Arden said.
Arden also said that the pneumonia that ultimately killed Leng was directly linked to the injury, because Leng was “essentially bedridden,” being unable to walk or stand on his own. This, Arden said, is a physiological stressor in that it makes breathing and heart function more difficult, and makes it more difficult to clear fluid out of the lungs, “open[ing] the door to breathing in liquid, whether it’s food or saliva or secretions. That’s called aspiration.”
Arden confirmed that it was his professional opinion that Leng’s death was a result of the injury to his neck.
Bilimoria told the jury that “the incident with law enforcement led to a blunt force on his neck, which led to trauma that caused spinal cord injury.”
“And despite the medical intervention,” Bilimoria continued, referencing the hospital staff’s decision to operate on Leng, in an effort to give the spinal cord space to swell and then heal, following the injury, “the injury progressed to findings outside of the spinal cord that included aspiration pneumonia that led to his death.”
Bilimoria said that Leng’s condition would have made him more susceptible to injury with less force, compared to a person without a degenerative spinal condition, but because a month had elapsed between the injury and subsequent medical intervention, and Leng’s death and autopsy, Bilimoria said he could not say how much force may have been applied to Leng’s neck.
Jurors also heard from the detective who investigated the case, King County Sheriff’s Office Det. Michael Mellis, as well as IPD Sgt. Laura Asbell, whom Lucht and Whittom called to the scene at the time of the encounter with Leng, as a matter of protocol, and IPD Chief Paula Schwann. Both Asbell and Schwann said that Lucht and Whittom followed protocol. Schwann defended the officers’ decision to handcuff Leng, despite his age, saying that “we arrest people of all ages. We’ve had combative and major fights. There’s a gentleman in our city who’s [in his] 60s or 70s, and he’s combative all the time we’re in contact with him.”
Jurors learned, too, that this was not the first time Whittom had responded to a call involving Leng. Two years prior, Leng had wandered away from the apartment complex he and Yang were living at the time, which was not the same place the couple lived in 2018. Whittom was a responding officer in that call. When questioned about it, Whittom told the jury that he did not remember, until after the encounter with Leng, that Leng was the same person he had assisted from the 2016 call.
Yang spoke of scrapes and bruises that she said Leng sustained, during the encounter with officers. Jurors saw pictures of the injuries Yang indicated. When asked about it, neither Lucht nor Whittom said they could recall anything specific that could have scraped or bruised Leng, though Whittom said it was possible those could have been sustained on the gear he was wearing.
Yang remembers her husband as a caring, quiet, good natured man, who helped out whenever he could, despite suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. She and Leng would take walks every day. She said they would attend concerts and seminars, and do other activities together, like dance every Saturday with other elders in their living complex. As her husband’s disease progressed, Yang said, she would encourage him to read the newspaper and sing. She said that his favorite things to do were sing and dance.
“We were like shadows,” she recalled. “We [were] never separate from each other, every day.”