Sunday, May 04, 2008

A shocking return to the death penalty

A few posts down I addressed the death penalty. But that penalty can be imposed in other forms long before trial.

Raw Story links to a story from Saturday's Cleveland Plain Dealer reporting on yet another excuse being made, another whitewash of, deaths related to police use of tasers. This case is particularly disturbing because it goes a little further than others.
Summit County Medical Examiner Lisa Kohler must delete any reference that Tasers contributed to the deaths of three men, a Summit County Common Pleas judge ordered Friday.

The deaths of Dennis Hyde and Richard Holcomb, who were on drugs and in an agitated state when police shot them with Tasers, should be ruled accidental, visiting Judge Ted Schneiderman wrote in his ruling. Any reference to homicide or "electrical pulse stimulation" should be deleted from death certificates and autopsy reports, he said.
That is, this is not a case where an examiner refused to find taser use contributed to a death, it's a case where in response to a suit by Taser International the judge ordered the county medical examiner to change her professional conclusions and report something other than her actual findings - bluntly, he ordered her to lie to protect the interests of the Taser corporation.

The Arizona Republic reported on Friday that this is part of an aggressive campaign on the part of Taser International, which
increasingly is targeting state and county medical examiners with lawsuits and lobbying efforts to reverse and prevent medical rulings that Tasers contributed to someone's death. ...

Many medical examiners, who are charged with determining the official causes of death, view the Scottsdale-based company's efforts as disturbing, the spokesman for the National Association of Medical Examiners says.

"It is dangerously close to intimidation," says Jeff Jentzen, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners. "At this point, we adamantly reject the fact that people can be sued for medical opinions that they make."
Taser International takes the position that any medical examiner who says being tased contributed to a death is by definition unqualified to make that determination, while arguing in court that its own hand-picked and company-paid witnesses are unbiased experts. It insists that it is impossible for the taser to do any lasting harm and particularly that it's impossible for it to induce heart failure, that instead the deaths are caused by a mythical state called "excited delirium,"
used to describe deaths of suspects who become so agitated by drugs, psychosis or poor health that their bodies shut down during struggles with police.
That is, they become so "agitated" that they just ... die. No exact reason, no actual direct cause, they just die. They just do. Not our fault. Not at all. Oh, there're claims that it's an "overdose of adrenaline" and some such, but even the claimed condition's proponents will admit that can't be proved even by autopsy, so why that should be more than idle speculation is unclear.

What is clear is first that cops and medical examiner allies have been using this excuse for excessive force for decades - even though it is a diagnosis which is not recognized by any medical manual or respectable medical organization - and second that the common factor in virtually all (if not all) cases of "death due to excited delirium" is the victim having just been in a struggle with police, including, often enough, having just been tased. Claims of coincidence can carry you just so far.

What's more, the assertion that tasers can't affect the heart are untrue according to research reported in the May 1 Canadian Medical Association Journal, which found that if the barbs strike such that the current flows across the heart, it can induce reactions. In the typically restrained language of scientific papers, the researchers said
it is inappropriate to conclude that stun gun discharges cannot lead to adverse cardiac consequences in all real world settings.
By the way, the same issue of CMAJ has a lead editorial called "Tasers in medicine: an irreverent call for proposals," which notes, among other things, that almost all research on the "safety" of tasers has been sponsored by the Taser corporation itself (a pattern it is repeating with research on "excited delirium") and refers to
a small group of dedicated researchers who diligently write letters to journals pointing out flaws in studies reporting harm from tasers. Unfortunately, some of these researchers occasionally neglect to mention their participation on TASER International’s medical advisory board or board of directors.
The whole has a fair amount of dry wit and is well worth reading.

The bottom line fact is that, as I have said more than a dozen times, tasers are dangerous weapons designed to inflict disabling pain and which all too often prove deadly - and which have, exactly as I predicted, become a weapon of domination, one intended to induce meek submission, no longer (as they supposedly were intended to be) an alternative to lethal force but an alternative even to no force. And the risks associated with their use will continue to increase as more police forces obtain them precisely because cops are falsely trained that they are "safe." As a result, and as experience has shown, police simply cannot be trusted to use tasers in the way their proponents insist is their purpose, as a last resort. They should be banned.

Footnote: Thanks go to Excited-Delirium for the link to the Arizona Republic story, to Truth not Tasers for leading me to Excited-Delirium and for tipping me to the CMAJ article, and to Tasered While Black for pointing me to Truth not Tasers.

Another Footnote: Truth not Tasers has the text of a solid editorial from the Globe & Mail (Canada) on the CMAJ findings and an official inquiry into tasers opening in Canada; the original is behind a pay firewall. It also has a list of 342 people - 322 Americans and 20 Canadians - who died shortly after being shocked with tasers by law enforcement personnel. The list continues to grow.

And a Third Footnote: To show just how impartial and unbiased he was, Judge Schneiderman of the Ohio case went even further in the case of the third man, one Mark McCullaugh:
McCullaugh, who had a history of psychiatric illness, died in Summit County Jail on Aug. 20, 2006, during a struggle with deputies who used Tasers and pepper spray. Five sheriff's deputies were indicted in his death.

Schneiderman ordered Kohler to rule McCullaugh's death undetermined and delete any references to homicide and the death possibly being caused by asphyxia, beatings or other factors.
Note that this went beyond the scope of the suit, which only related to the use of the taser, and that again, the judge is ordering the medical examiner to change an official record to reflect his desired conclusion. In this case as opposed to the first two, police officers had been charged - and the judge was in essence ordering that evidence be changed in a way that would exonerate them.

Which surely was the right thing because as we all know, cops can never be guilty of anything.

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