The East Detroit High School Pool
Stephen Ternullo, PE Unified Investigations and Sciences The East Detroit High School Pool

Nearly two years after being accused of involuntary manslaughter surrounding the drowning death of a high school student, former substitute teacher Jonathan Sails was set free.

“We’re happy that the court dismissed the charges against Jonathan,” said his attorney, Robert Leonetti. “Our position has always been that it was … more of an accident than a criminal act.”

The dismissal of all criminal felony charges by Macomb County Circuit Court Judge James Maceroni was based upon a similar civil case ruling involving the drowning death of another teen.

“We were very disappointed by the judge’s ruling,” said Macomb County Prosecutor Eric Smith. “We believe he misapplied the law.”

KeAir Swift was participating in a gym class at East Detroit High School’s pool Nov. 8, 2013 when he jumped feet first into the pool, believing the other students in the class would catch him, according to testimony from a student who witnessed the incident. However, the students couldn’t support Swift, and he sank to the bottom of the pool’s deep end. The young man did not know how to swim.

Sails was sitting on the bleachers fully clothed, with his back to the pool, when the incident occurred. He also was reluctant to retrieve Swift when the students went to him for help, the witness said. Sails thought the other students were kidding when they said Swift was drowning, according to the witness.

When Sails decided to act, the witness added, he went into the locker room to change clothes before jumping into the pool. He emerged a few minutes later and jumped into the pool, but then said he was unable to retrieve Swift because the water was too deep and he, the teacher, couldn’t swim, the witness added.

Sails did not have proper lifeguard certification, and prosecutors claim that he lied about that fact to the school.

Swift eventually was pulled unconscious from the pool by a school administrator who jumped in fully clothed. The student died several days later after being taken off life support.

Leonetti maintained there was no display of gross negligence and that Sails never relinquished his duty. “Once it became objectively clear that the boy was drowning, Jonathan was the first adult in the water trying to save the victim,” the attorney said. “He didn’t act in any kind of grossly negligent manner. He did what he could under the circumstances.”

Judge Maceroni noted the similarities between Sails’ case and a June 2015 civil action in the Michigan Supreme Court. In that instance, a lifeguard on duty at the Michigan Career and Technical Institute’s pool was not convicted of gross negligence in the 2009 drowning of a 19-year-old man with a learning disability. The issue at hand was whether the lifeguard’s failure to act led to the man’s proximate cause of death.

The judge in the Detroit case likewise ruled that Sails’ hesitation to act before attempting to rescue Swift did not result in the proximate cause of death. It therefore could not be used as a basis for a manslaughter charge.

“The appellate process has already begun,” Prosecutor Smith said. “We are hopeful that the appellate court will see things our way.”