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2 coaches charged with murder in death of basketball player who collapsed during practice

Imani Bell, 16, died after the coaches at Elite Scholars Academy in Jonesboro, Georgia, held a practice for members of the girls' basketball team in extreme heat.
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Two Georgia basketball coaches have been charged with murder in the death of a 16-year-old girl who died following an outdoor practice in extreme heat.

A Clayton County grand jury recently returned an indictment charging Larosa Maria Walker-Asekere and Dwight Broom Palmer with second-degree murder, second-degree child cruelty, involuntary manslaughter and reckless conduct.

The charges are in connection to the August 2019 death of Imani Bell, an Elite Scholars Academy student who died after members of the girls' basketball team practiced outdoors in temperatures that reached the high 90s.

Walker-Asekere was the head basketball coach and Palmer was an assistant, according to the family's attorney Justin Miller. Both were at the practice and had been in charge of the children.

At a press conference on Wednesday, the family and attorneys thanked the district attorney for bringing charges.

“The incident in question did not have to happen," Miller said.

Court documents do not list attorneys for Palmer or Walker-Asekere and they could not be reached at phone numbers listed for them.

Image: Imani Bell, a 16-year-old junior at Elite Scholars Academy in Clayton County, was participating in required conditioning drills for the girls' basketball team
Imani Bell, a 16-year-old junior at Elite Scholars Academy in Clayton County, was participating in required conditioning drills for the girls' basketball team on Aug. 13, 2019, when she collapsed.WXIA

In February, Bell's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against school administrators and said the team was doing a conditioning drill when Bell collapsed after running up the football stadium steps.

The suit said that the high school junior started “experiencing early signs of heat illness and was visibly struggling to physically perform the outdoor conditioning drills.” She was told to continue practicing, it alleged.

Bell was struggling so much that she had to hold "onto the railing to remain upright.”

“As Imani neared the top of the stadium steps, she suddenly collapsed and lost consciousness due to the extreme heat and humidity," the lawsuit stated.

School officials took the teen into the building and called 911.

She was taken to the hospital and died of heat-related cardiac arrest and kidney failure. According to the suit, an autopsy by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation found that her death was attributable to heatstroke caused by strenuous physical activity in extreme heat.

The heat index that day for the Jonesboro area, where the school is located, was between 101 to 106 degrees, according to the lawsuit. Jonesboro is about 20 miles south of downtown Atlanta.

A heat advisory had been issued for the area, the suit stated. The attorneys faulted the defendants for not taking the weather into consideration and for not following protocols outlined by the Georgia High School Association, which oversees athletics in the state.

Online policies by the organization say that outdoor practices are not to be held if a Wet Bulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) reading exceeds 92. The WBGT differs from the heat index because it takes into account temperature, humidity, wind speed, sun angle and cloud cover.

The readings should be checked 30 minutes before practice and every hour during practice.

The lawsuit stated that on the day of Bell's practice, the defendants failed to check the readings. The suit remains ongoing.

Bell's father, Eric Bell, is a coach at a nearby school. At Wednesday's press conference, he said he had canceled his practice that day because the WBGT reading was too high.

It's not clear if the coaches are still employed at Elite Scholars Academy. The district, Clayton County Public Schools, did not respond Wednesday to a request for an update on their employment status.

When asked for a comment on the lawsuit and charges, a district spokesperson said "the school system does not comment on personnel matters or pending/ongoing litigation" due to school practices and protocols.