updated 5/28/2004 2:29:39 PM ET 2004-05-28T18:29:39

Prosecutors dropped their case Friday against a security guard in the 2000 death of a man put in a choke hold during a shoplifting investigation _ a case that took on racial overtones.

The decision was made to dismiss manslaughter charges against Dennis Richardson after prosecutors consulted with the victim's family.

"It is in the best interest of justice that the case be dismissed," Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said in a statement.

Prosecutors had said Richardson, who is black, choked 273-pound Frederick Finley on June 22, 2000, in a scuffle that broke out as security workers tried to question the 11-year-old daughter of Finley's girlfriend about whether she had stolen a $4 bracelet from Lord & Taylor in Dearborn.

Police said Finley, 32, punched one of the guards who tried to detain the girl before Richardson put him in a headlock in the store's parking lot.

Richardson, a firefighter with no criminal record, was moonlighting as a guard at the time.

"I'm in shock," Richardson said after learning Thursday of plans to drop the charges. "That incident will never be over for me. It's something I think about every day."

At a preliminary hearing a judge dismissed the charge against Richardson, ruling that prosecutors did not present enough evidence to justify a trial. Subsequent appeals dragged into January of this year, when the state Supreme Court sent the case back for trial.

Finley's death sparked accusations by national civil rights leaders that Detroit-area merchants hired inadequately trained security guards who used excessive force to subdue shoplifting suspects.

Finley was also black. At least 5,000 protesters led by the Rev. Al Sharpton rallied soon after the death outside the Lord & Taylor, accusing the store of having black security workers watch minority shoppers to avoid the appearance of racial profiling.

Tensions increased over two months in early 2001 after three other black residents suspected of shoplifting struggled with security guards at other locations. Two of them died but criminal charges were not filed. A guard accused of beating the third suspect was acquitted of felonious assault.

Copyright 2004 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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