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Violent Night

[whitespace] SJSU/Lakim Washington Fallen Star: San Jose State University police have made no progress in an investigation into the apparent assault of student and activist Lakim Washington (inset: his Pioneer High School photo), who was found crumpled on the ground in front of this Spartan Village payphone.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Late last year, the president of SJSU's Black Student Union slipped into a coma after being found crumpled on the ground at Spartan Village. While the cause of his injuries remains a mystery, an investigation by university police has been shelved.

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

Lakim Washington does not remember what was on his mind when he went down to make a telephone call at the outdoor phone booth in the San Jose State University Spartan Village student housing complex around 11pm on the night of Nov. 24. It was schoolwork, apparently, since he made a call to a fellow student

who says they talked at some length about a course assignment. The 19-year-old president of the SJSU Black Student Union also may have been thinking about an upcoming trip to Africa, where he was planning on spending the spring quarter. But Washington does not even remember going down to the phone booth that night.

A month and a half later, Washington is due to be released soon from San Jose Medical Center, having suffered severe head trauma--a hematoma to the brain--and spending several days in a coma. A blow to his head has left him with selective memory loss, and Washington has no clear idea as to how his injuries occurred. But while available evidence points to a conclusion that Washington was attacked, San Jose University Police appear to have virtually abandoned their investigation into the matter.

Washington (who has family ties in both San Jose and Tacoma, Wash.) was an active and well-known leader on campus, one of the organizers of a recent African Unity Summit. A 1996 graduate of Pioneer High School in San Jose, Washington was active in student affairs and an all-star basketball player.

Spartan Village is located a mile east of the main university campus, on the corner of Humboldt and 10th streets next to Spartan Stadium. The public telephone where Washington held his conversation is next to a deserted stretch of 10th Street, set in the wall of a small outdoor corridor next to the housing complex office, only partially visible from the street and apartment units.

The unidentified woman who was talking with Washington at the time of the apparent attack told police that she went away from the phone for a few minutes during their conversation. When she returned to the phone, Washington did not respond to her queries.

Several minutes later, another woman walking across the complex discovered Washington collapsed on the ground in the hallway near the telephone, blood on his face. The telephone was off the hook, according to police. Washington was conscious, but unable to answer the woman's questions. Later, after being taken to San Jose Medical Center, Washington lapsed into a coma.

Members of Washington's family say he suffered two blows to his head: an initial blow to the back of the head (which may have caused the hematoma and coma) and a second blow to his forehead. Washington also sustained a black eye. Medical Center doctors themselves would not release further information on the cause of Washington's injuries without the family's permission. Family members were divided as to whether such permission should be given. But a source in the family says Washington's doctors told family members that he had probably been struck in the head with a blunt instrument.

Avoidance Behavior

Corporal Mark Swineford was initially assigned to investigate the incident for the San Jose State Department of Public Safety, which has jurisdiction in the matter. Swineford says that the police have conducted a thorough investigation, canvassing the complex and surrounding neighborhood and speaking at several meetings. Swineford says that he has turned up no leads or witnesses, adding that "it's extremely frustrating."

But there is a question about whether or not the SJSU Police are seriously investigating the case as an assault. When Swineford went on a leave of absence in late December, the investigation was taken over by SJSU Police Detective Tim Villarica. Villarica admits that he did nothing on the case.

Villarica says that SJSU police have not coordinated the investigation with the San Jose city police. Even though a possible assault might have been committed by individuals from outside the housing complex, where the SJSU Police have no jurisdiction, Villarica says he doesn't "see any need" to involve the San Jose city police. He says the two police agencies are currently cooperating on other cases, and such cooperation is normal.

Swineford said late last month that the investigation has come to a halt until police can speak with the only known witness: Washington himself. Swineford said that he is waiting for Washington "to recover sufficiently for his family to allow him to talk to police."

Reading from Swineford's case notes, Villarica says Swineford's last effort to speak with Washington came on Dec. 11. At that time, Swineford's notes indicate that San Jose Medical Center medical personnel told him that Washington was still unable to talk. Since that time, Washington has reportedly almost fully recovered, but nobody from the SJSU Police has attempted to speak with him.

In a Dec. 3 article, The Spartan Daily, the student newspaper of San Jose State University, quoted Swineford as saying that the source of Washington's injuries "could range anywhere from a medical area to an assault .... We have no evidence either way." The article also attributed to Swineford a statement that Washington was found at the telephone booth "having epileptic seizures."

Two days later, the Spartan Daily printed a correction, apologizing for the "error" and stating that "the officer's statement [that Washington was found having epileptic seizures] was not confirmed by medical personnel."

Washington's mother, Kim Washington-Moten of Tacoma, says she was incensed when she saw the "epileptic seizure" mention in the original Spartan Daily article. She says that Washington was in perfect health and has never had a seizure, and says that there is no history of epileptic seizures in his family.

Washington-Moten says she called the SJSU Department of Public Safety office and talked to an officer ("I don't know which one") who told her that the seizure information was released to the press because police feared that some people at the college were trying to make the assault into a racial issue.

The Dec. 3 Spartan Daily article speculated that Washington might have been the victim of a hate crime, printing the statement of an SJSU student implicating "three Caucasian male [students]" with whom Washington had "never really gotten along." The paper quoted Swineford as stating there wasn't "any hard evidence" to support the allegation.

Spin Doctors

Villarica continues to assert that Washington's injuries "could have been the result of him having a seizure," despite the assertions of doctors and the family.

"He was showing the classic signs of seizure when the initial officer arrived on the scene," Villarica says. "There was opportunity for multiple impacts ... against the pay phone itself, the ground, or the wall." But Villarica says that there is no notation in the case file as to the location of Washington's blood in any of these areas, an omission indicating either that there was no blood present or that SJSU Police investigators failed to look.

SJSU Police are attempting to place blame for the stalled investigation on San Jose Medical University medical personnel.

When asked why it could not be determined whether Washington's injuries were the result of a blow from an assault, Villarica says that Washington's doctors "aren't willing to put their medical knowledge on the line one way or another."

Dr. James Wyatt, intensive care unit director and assistant director of trauma at San Jose Medical Center and the physician who originally treated Washington in the emergency room, says it would be out of the ordinary for doctors to provide police with absolute conclusions about the cause of an injury.

Wyatt says it is a misconception that doctors can automatically determine such a cause. "In most cases where it is determined that an individual has been the victim of an assault it is from the testimony of a witness or the victim himself rather than from the medical evidence," he says. "When a patient is brought into the emergency room unconscious and bleeding from head wounds, any determination that the cause of the injuries was an assault would just be a theory."

He says it's not his job to determine whether an assault has occurred: "We are not soothsayers, and we are not into forensic medicine."

Friends and family were upbeat about Washington's recovery. "He's doing better and better every day," his mother says. "His memory is coming back, and we think he'll soon be able to talk."

Bahiyah Yasmeen, an SJSU journalist, calls Washington "a very special brother," saying that he "stands for what other students on the San Jose State University campus lacked ... a burning desire to change the travesties that people of color have to endure. A heart that is always smiling, even now, as the hospital tries to restrain the energy that he has to get up and do something. Lakim is a fighter, a survivor, and a precious keeper of the secrets to community."

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From the January 22-28, 1998 issue of Metro.

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