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Mathew Ajibade: 22-Year-Old's Death in Custody in Georgia Ruled a Homicide

by Elizabeth Chuck /  / Updated 

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The death of a 22-year-old mentally ill man in an isolation cell in Georgia has been ruled a homicide.

Mathew Ajibade was handcuffed to a restraint chair on New Year's Day after he allegedly hit his girlfriend and broke a deputy's nose while in the midst of a bipolar episode. His family alleges police used a Taser on Ajibade while he was restrained in the chair, and then left him there unattended.

On Thursday, Chatham County coroner William Wessinger said Ajibade's death was a homicide, citing blunt force trauma involving abrasions, scrapes and bumps on his upper body and head.

The homicide ruling was a "slight vindication in one sense, of knowing that they killed him, and now we need to know why and how," Mark O'Mara, the high-profile attorney hired by the Ajibade family, told NBC News.

But the family is not doing well, he added, still in grief over the loss of their son and now dealing with the news that "law enforcement, who is supposed to protect him, particularly in times of need, killed him."

Wessinger told NBC News he made the homicide ruling based on an autopsy by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which has jurisdiction over deaths in jails and state prisons, and has yet to release its findings publicly.

"I discussed it thoroughly with the chief medical examiner of the GBI," Wessinger said. "They found a small amount of blood inside the skull case, and they also listed the fact that a Taser had been used."

But homicide does not necessarily imply culpability, he cautioned.

"[Homicide is] sort of an incendiary term. The average layperson thinks that means murder. It does not. It's death at the hands of somebody else, that somebody else did something that caused the death," Wessinger said.

While Ajibade had various injuries on his skin, it wasn't clear where he got them from, he said.

"Were they incurred at the jail when he was booked? Were they incurred when he was being arrested? Were they incurred when he was in a scuffle with his girlfriend?" he said. "That's for somebody else to determine — maybe a court."

Wessinger said he transmitted his death certificate on Ajibade to a funeral home on May 8. Attorneys for the Ajibade family say they never received a copy of it, instead learning about the cause of death this week after it was leaked on social media.

Chatham County Sheriff Al St. Lawrence told reporters on Thursday that he could not comment on the homicide ruling until the Georgia Bureau of Investigation releases its findings.

O'Mara told NBC News he was "disgusted" that the family had to learn of the autopsy results from social media.

"The absolute lack of respect or consideration to the family is most disturbing to me. We have, literally, the parents who are still grieving figuring out what happened to their son and why are only told by an Instagram," he said.

Wessinger said he had no idea how Ajibade's death certificate got out.

"It's unfortunate that somebody leaked it," he said. "That's not the way to deal with any family."

Related: Nine Georgia Deputies Fired After 22-Year-Old's Death

IMAGE: Mathew Ajibade
Mathew Ajibade.

Ajibade's family says he was having a bipolar episode when his girlfriend called 911. The girlfriend had been struck and had blood on her cheek when Chatham County police arrived, a source said.

Instead of taking Ajibade to the hospital for mental health treatment, they arrested him and booked him in jail.

Last month, nine deputies were fired in connection with Ajibade's death. Two deputies were suspended without pay pending the results of an investigation, Chatham County Sheriff Al St. Lawrence said in a statement in May.

"Additionally, I have instituted numerous policy changes. Those changes include safeguards for those reported to suffer from a mental health illness as well as security cross checks," he said in the statement.

The Ajibade family wants transparency about what exactly happened and is part of a lawsuit to try to get the records released in the case.

"We want everything. We want the videos, we want the autopsy. So we're going to sue to get that done," O'Mara said.

"There's a crisis of trust with law enforcement in our country over the past couple of years, and it's attitude like this, a refusal to be transparent, a refusal to even be civil, just to be courteous to the family — call me up and say the certificate of death is here — this is why we have a crisis of confidence with law enforcement."

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