OAKLAND - The family of an Antioch man who died while being restrained by police two years ago want his death reclassified as a homicide after the forensic pathologist in the case allegedly backtracked on his autopsy findings.
The pathologist, Dr. Ikechi Ogan, initially ruled 30-year-old Angelo Quinto’s death was the result of excited delirium syndrome – a state when someone is agitated and confused. A jury ruled the death an accident during a coroner’s inquest.
But Quinto’s family said Ogan conceded in a civil deposition that he overlooked key details during his autopsy, and he now believes the death was due in part to asphyxia.
The initial omission turned out to be momentous. The Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office cleared the officers in the case, citing Ogan’s "excited delirium" finding among other factors.
Quinto’s family on Thursday filed a motion with the Contra Costa County Superior Court seeking to vacate Ogan’s original finding.
"The coroner's inquest into Angelo's death was a sham, just propaganda in an effort to wrongly exonerate the police who killed Angelo," the family’s attorney, Ben Nisenbaum told KTVU.
He added, "under questioning, with evidence, the coroner who took part in that kangaroo court proceeding conceded that in fact the police are at least partly responsible for killing Angelo by asphyxiating him during restraint."
Calls to Ogan's practice in Fairfield by KTVU were not answered.
Thursday’s motion marks a crucial turn in a controversial and emotionally-charged case. Quinto’s family have long said they believe he died from restraint asphyxia.
Officers responded to the family’s home on Dec. 23, 2020 after Quinto’s sister called police saying he was experiencing a mental health crisis.
When police arrived, one officer kneeled on Quinto’s shoulder to handcuff him, while another held his legs. Police held him face down until his body fell limp.
Quinto’s mother recorded a short video on her cell phone showing paramedics carrying away her son’s unconscious body. He was pronounced dead at a hospital three days later.
But during the coroner’s inquest the following August, Ogan frustrated the family and their attorneys when he testified that Quinto died from excited delirium syndrome.
Excited delirium is a widely-debunked medical diagnosis that has been rejected by groups like the American Medical Association because it is almost exclusively applied in cases where people die in police custody.
"Excited delirium might as well be spontaneous combustion," Nisenbaum said. "I don't see how anyone could trust the results of this county's coroner's inquests after what they did in this case. Certainly not where law enforcement is involved in the death."
In August, BART announced it would remove the term from its police department’s policy manual due to the controversy around its use.
What’s more, Ogan found the pharmaceutical drug Modafinil contributed to Quinto’s death, even though the drug is an anti-narcolepsy stimulant, which has no record of fatal overdoses.
Ogan said he initially ruled out the possibility that Quinto was asphyxiated because his body lacked the tell-tale signs: small hemorrhages in his eyes called petechiae.
Ogan testified during the inquest that there was "no evidence of petechial at all in Mr. Quinto’s eyes."
Quinto’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2021, and their attorneys have since deposed Ogan three times.
During the depositions, they confronted Ogan with photos of Quinto’s eyes from an independent autopsy.
According to Ogan’s testimony, he observed "quite large and very prominent" petechiae, Nisenbaum wrote in his filing.
"If I had had the petechiae, I might have added the positional asphyxiation, those words, you know, into my diagnosis somewhere," Ogan said, according to the deposition transcript obtained by KTVU. "But clearly with the broad petechiae that he had in his eyes. There was some sort of obstruction of respiration."
Nisenbaum said Ogan acknowledged that he now believes Quinto died from a combination of factors, including asphyxiation during restraint and excited delirium.
In light of Ogan’s depositions, the family is seeking to vacate the finding of the coroner’s inquest and asking the court to correct the manner of death to homicide.
It's extremely rare that a coroner's finding is ever overturned. And the family's efforts may be a long shot.
But the state attorney general has agreed to review the case and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law in 2021 in Quinto’s honor banning certain police holds.
The family is scheduled to hold a press conference Friday at 11 a.m. with Nisenbaum and fellow civil rights attorney John Burris.
Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky