On New Year’s Day, police came for Georgia college student Mathew Ajibade, a 21-year-old computer science major in the throes of a bipolar disorder episode. His girlfriend called 911 and tried to get deputies to take him to the hospital.
Instead, Ajibade was carted to jail on a domestic violence charge. Chatham County sheriff’s deputies say he attacked officers—giving one female sergeant a concussion and broken nose.
The Nigerian-born student was put in isolation, then stunned with a Taser gun while restrained, authorities say. He was later found dead, still strapped to a chair. His family is still seeking answers on what exactly happened that day in his Savannah cell.
Now, with the case in the national spotlight, district attorney Meg Heap is requesting a gag order on Ajibade’s relatives and attorneys. She’s also a plaintiff in a lawsuit—along with the county sheriff—to stop local TV station WSAV from obtaining video and public records on Ajibade’s detention, court records show.
The sheriff’s department and DA’s office declined to comment on Ajibade’s case. The county attorney did not return messages left by The Daily Beast.
Ajibade’s cousin, Chris Oladapo, 27, told The Daily Beast that Heap never reached out to the student’s heartbroken family.
“It feels like the sheriff’s department was the victim and she was on their side,” Oladapo said. “Living in Savannah … everyone knows everyone. What’s one black kid’s life … why let one kid’s life get in the way?”
On Wednesday, a grand jury indicted two ex-deputies and a health care worker with felony involuntary manslaughter in Ajibade’s death—charges advocates said weren’t serious enough for the crime. The student’s family questioned why no one was charged with murder, and why several other jail employees walked free.
A day after the indictment, the DA’s office asked a judge for a temporary gag order against the victim’s family, the Savannah Morning News reported.
“Throughout the course of these matters … counsel for the victim’s family have extensively engaged in extra-judicial commentary and solicited media coverage of the same,” the petition said.
“The saturation of the media by attorneys for the victim in this case may prompt the defendants and their agents to feel that the need to respond in kind.”
Last month, Chatham County Sheriff Al St. Lawrence announced he fired nine deputies involved in the Ajibade investigation and that three other officers quit sometime before.
Mark O’Mara, an attorney for the Ajibade family, has filed a suit to get Heap bumped from the case over alleged conflicts of interest—including a shared political consultant with St. Lawrence and campaign donations accepted from him, according to court documents.
“We’re supposed to have a prosecutor that’s informing and protecting the victim, but in this case, they have completely clamped down,” said O’Mara, who successfully represented George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case. “They have refused to tell us anything.”
The attorney has his guesses on why Heap didn’t push for felony murder charges in the grand jury indictment and why she didn’t investigate higher-ups at the county jail. “Because they’re buddies,” he said. “These are her sheriff’s deputies. Her buddy’s deputies. Just get out of the case. You’re too tied up in it.”
O’Mara told The Daily Beast that Heap refused to tell Ajibade’s family his cause of death despite knowing it for months.
A spokeswoman for Heap said the DA’s office would not comment on the allegations. In a recent statement to Georgia Public Broadcasting, Heap cited rules barring lawyers from discussing open cases.
Heap is expected to address these issues in court on Monday.
Grieving relatives only discovered how he died after his death certificate was leaked on social media this month, WSAV reported. The coroner ruled the death a homicide by blunt-force trauma caused by an altercation with the officers.
Meanwhile, WSAV anchor Dave Kartunen has repeatedly requested internal affairs reports and video regarding Ajibade’s death at the Chatham County jail, where three other inmates died in custody in the last year.
The requests prompted St. Lawrence and Heap to file a suit against WSAV to get a judge to rule on whether such documents should be released.
The sheriff’s office claims it does not have to release jail surveillance tapes because of the pending criminal case against former employees.
Heap instructed the sheriff’s department not to release a video of detention center feeds because she was concerned the case would “be tried in the media, and not in court,” court records show.
But because the sheriff’s office is under investigation by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the video is not considered exempt under Georgia law, the TV station argues.
“There is an obvious and deliberate attempt to silence public discussion of a matter of public concern,” Sadie Craig, an attorney for WSAV, told The Daily Beast. “That’s upsetting from a First Amendment perspective, from a legal perspective, from the perspective of my client. It’s contrary to democracy.”
For Oladapo and his family, the information shutdown is a lesson in American justice gone wrong.
“There’s no Dummies guide when the system kills your brother,” said Oladapo, a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, where Ajibade attended school.
“We are understanding a lot more … that everything in America has to do with black or white, and if one tends to not accept that fact, it makes the situation a lot worse.”
Oladapo said many African immigrants like those in his family—who moved to Maryland 10 years ago—are ignorant on issues of race inequality.
“We just want a better life. As long as you give us a better life, we’ll close our eyes to the issue,” Oladapo said. “We’re new tenants. We are acclimating ourselves to the culture and what it is to be an average black family in America.”