In May 1979, Los Angeles pathologists accused the death of Jerry Eugene Wright Jr., a 20-year-old black man who police officers had mistaken for a drug user, of “massive intravascular sickness.” In fact, he was the victim of a violent robbery; They handcuffed him and laid him face down on the floor, ignoring bystanders who warned that he was having difficulty breathing. Mr. Wright’s family later received $ 2.1 million after being sued for wrongful death.

A panel convened by a coroner outside Augusta, Georgia concluded that 33-year-old Larry Gardner had died of cardiopulmonary arrest due to sickle cell characteristics in August 1984 after authorities arrested him for marijuana and shoplifting. Mr Gardner’s death caused rioting after it was said he was beaten in custody.

Authorities in Burlington County, New Jersey, cited sickle cell traits in two brothers who died in police custody 15 years apart. They first used it to explain the sudden death of Sidney Miles, 20, when he was fleeing from officials arrested in 1984 for driving a license without a license.

They cited it again when his brother, Cleathern Miles, 28, stopped breathing in 1999 after police shot him with pepper spray and arrested him in the middle of an apparent nervous breakdown – during which he called his dead brother’s name. The same pathologist, Dr. Dante Ragasa, performed both autopsies.

“There were allegations of police brutality when Sidney died, but it wasn’t,” acting District Attorney James Gerrow told reporters in 1999. “Unfortunately and tragically, this reflects what happened to Sidney.”

“There was no police wrongdoing in either case,” he added.

The death of 14-year-old Florida boy Martin Lee Anderson highlights the potential dangers of medical examiners rushing to accuse sickle cell traits.

An autopsy found Martin’s death natural and said the feature was why he suddenly stopped breathing in January 2006. However, a later investigation found that he died after drilling instructors in a Bay County, Florida juvenile detention center hit and kneeled him, hugging him, pressing her fingers into pressure points, and covering his mouth while he forced him to inhale ammonia.