Doctor on Williams’ case: Death by Sickle Cell trait “extremely rare”

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MILWAUKEE -- 14 months ago, 22-year-old Derek Williams died while in Milwaukee police custody. Now, there are calls for an investigation into what happened in the moments before Williams died.

Monday, September 24th, Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm held a news conference, alongside Milwaukee Police Chief Ed Flynn to discuss revising this case. The two are seeking an independent prosecutor to handle an inquest into Williams' death. The two have consulted with U.S. Attorney James Santelle on the matter.

Earlier Monday, members of the Milwaukee Common Council issued a joint statement, calling for the U.S. Attorney to conduct an investigation into the death of Williams.

Meanwhile, the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission pointed out it had already examined the controversial dashcam video and other evidence before ruling officers did nothing wrong in July of 2011, when Williams died.

Dashcam video taken in the early morning hours of July 6th, 2011 shows Williams apparently struggling to breathe while under arrest for robbery. Not long after this, Williams was pronounced dead.

A recently revised Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's report names homicide as the manner of death -- though that does not necessarily mean the same thing as murder in a criminal case. Previously, the Medical Examiner had ruled Williams' death was caused by a Sickle Cell trait.

Dr. Paul Scott is the Medical Director at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin's Sickle Cell Center. He says Sickle Cell trait is simply a genetic mutation -- not the full-blown Sickle Cell disease. It is found primarily in African-Americans.

"Sickle Cell trait is not associated with sudden unexpected death. Having Sickle Cell trait is partially protective against malaria -- which was a big help in Africa where malaria was endemic," Dr. Scott said.

Sickle Cell disease can occur when two people with Sickle Cell trait have a child. If diagnosed with the disease, that child faces the danger of their red blood cells "sickling" or changing from round cells to pointed cells. The same scenario is possible in those with the trait, but very rare.

"Sickling is usually averted, other than the rare circumstances of serious dehydration and fluid depletion," Dr. Scott said.

Though rare, death via Sickle Cell trait may fit the circumstances surrounding Williams' death. In the Medical Examiner's report, Williams' girlfriend told investigators Williams had taken ecstasy earlier that day -- a drug that can lead to dehydration. Also, according to police, Williams had led them on a foot chase immediately before his arrest.

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