Drowning by Sunrise: Recent documentary highlights South Florida tragedy

Drowning by Sunrise​: What police say is accidental, family say is impossible. Sunrise Police watch as Florida boy drowns in canal.

Last March, Sunrise Police officers stood by and watched as a child drowned in a canal. 


Damain Martin, 16, died March 8, 2019. Damain was running from police officers who saw him and a few friends in a car that was reported as stolen. The chase ended near a canal, and Damain jumped in. But first, a police officer deployed his taser near the water while attempting to catch Damain.


A new mini-documentary about this local South Florida tragedy came out in December. While it’s only 8-minutes long, the story told and questions raised are significant. Official reports recently claimed no taser came into contact with Damain and ruled his death as an accidental drowning. Family and friends say that’s impossible – Damain was a strong swimmer and athlete

An arial view of Sunrise and the canal of where Damain Martin drowned March 2019.

“There are some questions we want to be answered. As to the cause of death, was he tased? Was he tased in the water? Was he tased outside of the water? Everybody knows that DJ knows how to swim,” Christina Atwell, Damain’s cousin, says in the documentary. She also questions why none of the observing Sunrise police officers went in to help him when he was asking for help. 


Witnesses say the black teen begged police for help as he drowned. A witness’ voice can be heard in the documentary recounting that they saw Damain jump into the canal and surface from the water twice – screaming ‘help me.’ The witness continues to say, “the third time he went down, he didn’t come back at all.” A witness told news sources they saw a police officer get ready to jump in after Damain, but he was allegedly told not to.


Damain’s death was ultimately ruled as an accident

A report says that the Broward Sheriff’s Office completed an investigation and ruled Damain’s death to be an “accidental drowning”  — it also cites there was no evidence of a taser probe contact.


The documentary, however, reports “an investigation by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting suggests that Damain may have been struck by a police taser as he entered the water.” 


Dr. Angelique Corthals, a forensic anthropologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY; says there appears to be a discrepancy in the autopsy report. She says the autopsy report is very thorough, as are the photographs of Damain’s body. While the autopsy report is thorough, she says there is a missing detail that is quite obvious in photographs — a wound on Damain’s arm. She says that this type of wound is exactly what someone would be looking for if they were investigating a potential taser wound. The fact that this wound is not mentioned in the report, which is otherwise very complete, she says is  “a grave omission.”


Crime scene photos show a taser cartridge roughly 5 feet from the sea wall, according to the documentary.  An officer fired two taser probes – one about 33 feet from the sea wall and the second was never found.


The Sunrise Police Department has declined requests for comment. Damain’s mother also says in the documentary that the police department didn’t even tell her about her son’s drowning – she says they didn’t tell her anything.


Adam’s hot take on the story: 

  1. Regardless of if Damain & his friends committed a crime or not, or if Damain was running from the police, I believe general human decency would have clearly called for police to save Damain’s life – especially since most people go into law enforcement to help people. 
  2. In my experience both as a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, when something about a case isn’t right – there might be reason to suspect foul play. The fact that the second taser cartridge is “missing” could likely mean a police officer picked it up, or it went into the water.

“If the officer tased Damain … and the officer just watched – not only would that be cruel, not only would that be inhumane, it could very well be illegal,” Paul Butler, a law professor and legal analyst, says in the documentary.


We encourage you to watch the brief, important, documentary for yourself.


The documentary was directed and reported by Jess Swanson & Jason Fitzroy Jeffers. You can watch it at the top of our blog, or by searching for “Drowning by Sunrise by the Intercept” on YouTube or Google.

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