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Nigerian student’s death in police custody in Georgia ruled a homicide

The death of a 21-year-old Nigerian student in an isolation jail cell in Savannah, Georgia, on New Year’s Day has been ruled a homicide, Chatham County coroner William Wessinger said Thursday.

Matthew Ajibade’s cause of death “is listed as blunt force trauma, which was really a combination of several things that were enumerated in his autopsy report by the {Georgia Bureau of Investigation],” the coroner said, citing “abrasions, lacerations, skin injuries about the head and some other areas of the body. There was some small amount of blood inside the skull case.”

Wessinger stressed that homicide means only that another person was involved. It is not tantamount to murder, though it includes murder, he said.

Nine Chatham County deputies were fired in connection with Ajibade’s death last month, said Gena Bilbo, spokeswoman for the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office. Cpl. Maxine Evans and Cpl. Jason Kenny, two of those nine deputies had been on paid leave for “inappropriate actions” in the case, Bilbo said.

Authorities provided no further details into the deputies’ conduct at the time.

Ajibade died in custody after he “became combative during the booking process,” the sheriff’s office said in an incident report.

During the alleged jail altercation, three deputies were injured, including a female sergeant who suffered a concussion and broken nose, authorities said.

The alleged combativeness doesn’t square with family members’ description of the 21-year-old, whom they described as a much-loved “geeky kid” who traveled to Savannah to study computer science.

On Thursday, a lawyer representing the family said the release of Ajibade’s death certificate raises more questions than answers.

“It demands even further, absolute transparency,” said attorney Mark O’Mara, who’s also a CNN legal analyst.

He criticized authorities for how they’ve handled the case. “First of all, they knew [the cause of death] back in January, I’m sure. This [death certificate] was signed May 8, and a month later we find out about it … . I just don’t see how they can be so insensitive to the man, and insensitive to the family’s grief,” O’Mara said. “They have hid this from us for five months. It makes no sense.”

O’Mara, who once represented George Zimmerman in the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin, previously called the disciplinary action against the two deputies “a good small step in holding people responsible for their actions.”

“We still need questions answered how Matthew’s life was taken from him,” the attorney said.

Ajibade was diagnosed with bipolar disorder three years ago and was having a medical emergency at the time of his arrest and confinement, O’Mara said.

Savannah police arrested Ajibade on Jan. 1 after receiving a call about a domestic disturbance.

When police arrived, they witnessed Ajibade holding a woman under a blanket, according to an incident report. Police uncovered the two and noticed that the woman’s “face was bruised, and her nose was bleeding,” the report says.

Officers ordered Ajibade to release the woman, but he did not comply, the report says, adding that when police tried to arrest Ajibade, he proceeded to “resist apprehension in a violent manner.”

He was accused of domestic violence, battery and obstruction of an officer.

A woman whom he identified as his girlfriend tried to inform police of his mental health issues, O’Mara said.

“She also gave police a bottle of his medication,” the attorney said.

Once at the jail, officials say, Ajibade had to be restrained, during which time he injured the three officers. He was then moved to an isolation cell because of his “dangerous behavior,” a police news release said.

Deputies conducted welfare checks on Ajibade and on their second check, he was found nonresponsive, police said. First aid was administered by the jail’s medical unit staff. Despite CPR and attempts to restart his heart with a defibrillator, Ajibade could not be revived, according to the release.

It’s unclear how much of the event, if any, was captured on the jail’s surveillance system, or whether officers conducted a mental health evaluation before Ajibade’s death.

County government officials have declined CNN requests for an interview.

The Sheriff’s Office requested that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation conduct an independent investigation, and the Chatham County District Attorney’s Office said a criminal investigation is ongoing and the office will “handle the matter further, should it become necessary.”

CNN’s Devon M. Sayers, Joshua Berlinger and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to this report.