Two high school basketball coaches have been charged with murder after a 16-year-old student died after running drills in nearly 100-degree heat two years ago.
Attorneys representing the family of Imani Bell announced the charges on Wednesday, just days before the second anniversary of her Aug. 13 death in Jonesboro, Georgia.
“It doesn’t get any easier. Not at all,” her father, Eric Bell, said at a press conference where he called the charges “bittersweet.”
Though the charges weren’t announced until this week, a Clayton County grant jury last month indicted LaRosa Maria Walker-Asekere, the head basketball coach at Elite Scholars Academy in Jonesboro, and Dwight Broom Palmer, the assistant basketball coach, on charges of second-degree murder, cruelty to children, involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct, court documents show.
The temperature was in the high 90s and the region was under a heat advisory, with the heat index between 101 and 106 degrees, when Imani collapsed while running up the football stadium’s steps, according to a lawsuit filed by her family against the school’s administrators in February.
“Defendants observed Imani experiencing early signs of heat illness during the outdoor practice but nevertheless directed Imani to continue performing the conditioning drills with her team and directed Imani to run up the stadium steps,” the family’s lawsuit states.
An autopsy by the Georgia Bureau of Investigations determined that her death was “solely attributable to heatstroke caused by strenuous physical exertion in extreme temperatures,” according to the lawsuit.
Imani’s father is a coach at another school in the area and said that his own sports practices had been canceled that day because of the extreme heat, due to a district-wide policy that requires outdoor athletic activities to be suspended when the heat index hits 95 degrees, his attorneys said.
“You have coaches who want to win more than take care of our children,” Eric Bell’s attorney, Justin Miller, said at Wednesday’s press conference. “Imani was listening to the authority figure, like her father taught her, and this is what happened.”
A law professor at Georgia State University, speaking to The New York Times about the charges via email, suggested that the murder charges may be intended to encourage a plea deal.
“A murder charge strapped on to a child endangerment/abuse charge isn’t obviously inappropriate,” said Jessica Gabel Cino. “But I do question whether the prosecution can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.”
A representative for Clayton County Public Schools declined to comment on the charges to HuffPost on Thursday and would not say whether Walker-Asekere and Palmer remain employed. Court records do not list an attorney for either defendant and local media’s attempts to reach them for comment were reportedly unsuccessful.