CLAYTON COUNTY, Ga. — Two Clayton County, Georgia high school coaches have been charged with second degree murder and second degree cruelty to children in the 2019 death of a basketball player who suffered a heat stroke after practicing outdoors in nearly 100-degree weather.
A grand jury indictment issued last month said Laroa Walker-Asekere and Dwight Palmer were responsible for the death of Imani Bell by “conducting outdoor conditioning training for student athletes in dangerous heat, resulting in the death of Imani Bell due to hyperthermia and rhabdomyolysis.”
The indictment charges Asekere and Palmer with second-degree murder, second-degree child cruelty, involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct.
On August 13, 2019, 16-year-old Imani was participating in required conditioning drills for the girls’ basketball team at Elite Scholars Academy high school when she collapsed. The temperature was in the high 90 degrees Fahrenheit and the area was under a severe heat advisory.
Imani died later that day of heat-related cardiac arrest and kidney failure.
According to official reports, Imani was one of eight teammates who gathered that day for condition training. The players were told to run up a hill, perform jumping jacks and then come back down the hill. Imani lagged, at which time the coaches were “encouraging her and providing her water,” the report says. Following that, the players then ran a quarter mile lap around the track and were instructed to run up a set of stairs.
“Miss Bell attempted to run with the girls for the last lap but was unable and did a fast paced walk,” the report says. “One of the coaches noticed Miss Bell was tired, so he started walking the last lap with her and encouraged her.”
When she arrived at the stairs, Imani began pulling herself up by the railing, the report says.
“A coach was with her, encouraged her and may have physically assisted her up the stairs. As Miss Bell neared the top … (she) leaned into the rail and then went limp.”
Both Asekere and Palmer were arrested in July and later released from jail on $75,000 bonds.
Although an autopsy performed by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation determined the manner of death an “accident”, both coaches have been charged with second degree murder.
Justin Miller, an attorney for the Bell family and a cousin of Imani’s, said the second degree murder charge is proper because it was done in association with another felony — in this case, cruelty to children. Miller said the district attorney’s office informed the family of the charges before they were filed.
“The charges are good,” he said. “Someone is being held responsible. This is what the family wanted.”
The family’s lawsuit says school officials violated a Georgia High School Association rule banning outdoor practices in weather conditions such as those that Imani faced. It also says they never properly measured the temperature in advance.