A Lancaster man who sued the city after he was stunned with a Taser by a police officer two years ago died late last week in Philadelphia.
On June 28, 2018, Sean D. Williams was sitting on a curb in downtown Lancaster when city police officers responded to a disturbance on South Prince St. near West King St. A video of the encounter, showing an officer using a Taser to stun Williams, went viral in the days afterward. Williams was unarmed and later said he was confused by conflicting orders from the officers.
The cause of Williams' death is unknown. He was 29.
Brian Mildenberg, a lawyer who was representing Williams in an excessive-force lawsuit against a Lancaster police officer, said Williams' death, either late Friday night or early Saturday morning at Temple University Hospital, was being investigated by the Philadelphia Medical Examiner's office.
"Until the medical examiner issues findings and a report, it is premature to discuss cause of death, and such cause remains unknown," he said. "However, it is true that Mr. Williams suffered severe head and brain injuries and trauma, that he was on a ventilator for several days, on life support, and that he has now passed from this life."
He disputed an account by Lancaster police, who earlier Monday said they'd been told by a Temple hospital social worker last week that Williams had overdosed.
"The concept that he died of a drug overdose, as claimed today by a representative of the Lancaster city police, does not comport with the fatal injuries he suffered. Whether he was assaulted or injured in some other way is still unknown at this time," Mildenberg said.
Williams’ sister, Phaja Boyer, 31, said while the family is uncertain exactly happened, she understands that her brother was attacked.
Boyer said her brother aspired be a rapper and dreamed of playing to a sold-out Clipper Magazine Stadium.
"My brother was a lyricist and a very good one. He started to do PCP after his best friend was murdered. He struggled with drugs but was never the type of person to steal from anyone," Boyer said. "He would give anything to anyone. He wasn’t materialistic. He lived his only daughter and tried to get clean for her."
Boyer was referencing her brother's friend Brandon Seals, a 22-year-old who was shot and killed on July 13, 2011, in Lancaster. The homicide remains unsolved.
...All he wanted to do was become a famous rapper and take care of his family. He got mixed up with the wrong people after he lost his best friend and changed forever, but he was loving and kind and giving."
A GoFundMe page was created Sunday to help with funeral costs, possible legal fees and to for savings for his 9-year-old daughter, Naoni.
After video of the 2018 Taser incident went viral, Lancaster city leadership began evaluating community-police relations and ultimately revamped the police department's use-of-force policy.
Officer Philip Bernot shocked Williams after he failed to follow directions from police who were responding to a disturbance on South Prince Street near West King Street. Williams, who was sitting unarmed on a curb, has said he was confused by conflicting commands being given by two officer.
The county prosecutor at the time, Craig Stedman, criticized Bernot’s actions, but the officer wasn't charged because he was following department policy in place at the time.
A week after the encounter, Williams sued the city and Bernot, both as an officer and individually. Williams' suit claimed excessive force, that police failed to provide adequate medical care and that Williams, who is Black, had been racially profiled.
Last December, the parties agreed to drop Williams' medical and racial profiling claims. And in February, U.S. Magistrate Judge Henry S. Perkin in Allentown dismissed his claim of excessive force against the city and Bernot in his capacity as a police officer.
That left Williams' suit solely against Bernot individually; Williams was seeking more than $75,000 from the officer. The city is covering Bernot’s legal costs under its labor contract with police.
"We intend to move forward as to the lawsuit. We have the underlying alleged excessive force on video, which should suffice for the jury," said Matthew B. Weisberg, another attorney in Williams' suit.
Blanding Watson, head of the Lancaster NAACP Branch, said the group "will continue to assist and advocate on this case in Sean’s memory and to continue the work to change the culture of the Lancaster police department’s use of excessive force and other criminal justice reforms."
Williams' case was originally scheduled for trial Feb. 10, but Williams failed to show because he'd been arrested after Lancaster police said they found him high on PCP, a hallucinogenic drug, on North Queen Street. He was charged with public drunkenness and pleaded guilty in June.
The city sought to have the excessive force claim case dismissed, arguing Williams had failed to pursue his case by missing the trial start. However, Perkin allowed the case to go forward, but ruled if Williams won, he'd have to forfeit $10,000 of whatever he might be awarded.