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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Taser maker disputes autopsy findings

April 22, 2008
Stephanie Warsmith, Akron Beacon Journal

Just before Dennis Hyde died, he said to one of the Akron police officers who had just used a Taser on him: ''Thank you. Thank you. You are sending me home.''

Whether the Taser shocks contributed to the death of Hyde — and two other Akron men in separate incidents — is the central question in a civil case this week in Summit County Common Pleas Court.

The Taser International Co. is suing Summit County Medical Examiner Lisa Kohler, who ruled the use of the stun gun-like weapons were a contributing factor in the deaths.

Akron still has police officers using Tasers. The city is siding with the company against the county, which is defending Kohler.

The results of the lawsuit could have broad implications. Civil and criminal cases are pending in the local cases, and Tasers have been linked to dozens of other deaths across the United States.

During opening arguments Monday, Assistant Akron Prosecutor Patricia Ambrose called Tasers ''a crucial, nonlethal instrument'' used by thousands of officers.

Ambrose said the city and Taser will show Kohler incorrectly blamed the weapons and that ''excited delirium'' instead was responsible. Excited delirium is used to describe deaths of suspects who are in police custody and are highly agitated or under the influence of drugs.

John Maley, one of two attorneys representing Taser, said the weapons give officers an option other than ''guns, batons and fists.''

He said there is no scientific evidence to prove Tasers kill
people and Kohler did not understand the way Tasers work when she made her rulings.

Maley said Taser wants visiting Judge Ted Schneiderman, who is presiding over the case, to modify the cause of death findings to delete references about the weapon contributing to the deaths or to say it was undetermined whether it contributed.

John Manley, chief counsel in the Summit County prosecutor's civil division, said the Taser company's request ''asks the court to issue an order that steps on the thought-out, carefully deliberated'' findings of three pathologists.

''We are not saying this is the sole or direct cause,'' Manley said. ''We are saying it contributed in some way. How much, we may never know.''

Manley pointed to Taser's product warning, which says ''it is important to remember that the very nature of self-defense, use of force, and physical confrontation or incapacitation involves a degree of risk that someone will get hurt or may even be killed due to physical exertion, unforeseen circumstances and/or individual susceptibilities.''

Manley said the three men in this case may have had ''individual susceptibilities'' that made the use of Tasers lethal for them.

The three deaths at issue are:

• Hyde, 30, who died in January 2005 after being shocked with a Taser multiple times by Akron police.

• Richard Holcomb, 18, who died in May 2005 after being stunned with a Taser by a Springfield Township police officer.

• Mark McCullaugh Jr., 28, who died in August 2006 after a struggle with deputies in the Summit County Jail. The deputies used pepper spray and a Taser to restrain him. (Five deputies have been indicted in his death.)

Kohler's office listed the cases as homicides and said the electrical shocks by the Tasers contributed to the deaths.

The civil trial will last at least through Thursday, with both sides calling competing expert witnesses. Kohler, who is sitting beside Manley during the trial, is expected to testify this afternoon.

In an unrelated case, a Taser has been linked to an injury in Oxford over the weekend.

A Chicago man is in critical condition after being stunned with a Taser Saturday by police. Officers called paramedics when Kevin Piskura, 24, had trouble breathing.

The Butler County prosecutor is reviewing the case.

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