A recent investigation into the use of the sickle cell trait as a cause for death revealed that dozens of Black families are still waiting for justice after their loved one died in police custody.
“Most people don’t know they have the sickle cell trait so if the trait were that much of an issue from a public health perspective, we would know about it,” said Dr. Lanetta Bronté-Hall, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Foundation of Sickle Cell Disease Research. “At the foundation, we provide medical services as well as clinical research and advocacy for patients with sickle cell disease and sickle cell traits.”
The sickle cell trait was mentioned as a cause for death in the Derek Chauvin case. Attorney’s for Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer convicted of killing George Floyd – invoked the sickle cell trait in an attempt to dismiss the case; they were unsuccessful. However, the New York Times shows at least 47 different cases over the last 20 years that were dismissed because of the trait.
One of those cases was Lamont Perry’s. He was chased into Wadesboro, North Carolina woods by law enforcement; reports say his body was found in those same woods with blunt force trauma to the head and fractured bones. Perry’s family was not able to see his body until after the autopsy where a medical examiner documented that his cause of death was the sickle cell trait.
Doctor Bronté-Hall told Atlanta Black Star that the sickle cell trait is most commonly carried in African American’s but it is not something that one typically dies from.
“Sickle Cell disease is when you have two copies of the sickle gene therefore you have the full-blown disease. Sickle cell trait is when you have one copy of a normal gene and one copy of a sickle gene and so you are a carrier,” said Dr. Bronté-Hall.
One out of twelve African Americans is a carrier and one out of 365 African Americans have sickle cell disease.
“African American’s, Hispanic American’s – anyone with ties to Africa, Mediterranean, India — where malaria was endemic, is where you see sickle cell hemoglobin’s and they primarily served as a protection mechanism against malaria,” explained Dr. Bronté-Hall. “So, with the slave trade, your genes go with you wherever you go and so there was transcontinental exportation of people, and the gene was introduced to other areas across the globe.”
Medical experts, including Dr. Bronté-Hall, say the disease is considered rare by U.S. standards and unlikely to be a cause of death for someone who is only a carrier of the trait as opposed to someone who has the disease. The 47 Black men that died in police custody over the last 20 years were only carriers of the trait, they did not have the disease.
“We have a long way to go in our country as it relates to how we are monitoring the health of minority and vulnerable populations and how we actually report their cause of death,” said Dr. Bronté-Hall. “ We shouldn’t lead to such rare causes that it becomes a scapegoat for the public to use and say – this is why this young person die because they were a carrier of sickle cell trait.”
In two thirds of police custody deaths, sickle cell trait was listed as the cause and each of those people had either experienced a taser gun, dog bite or pepper spray.
“Limiting someone’s oxygen, holding them in positions where their chest is not able to expand for them to take a breath and have oxygen move through their body – those are causes of death versus having someone having one gene that says that they are a carrier, ” said Dr. Bronté-Hall.
The families of many of the victims who died in police custody did not have the money to challenge the dismissals of their cases after medical examiners documented sickle cell trait as their cause of death. The New York Times investigation found dozens of cases dating back to the 1970s that used sickle cell trait as a cause of death.