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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Officers face jury in taser death of Robert Heston

May 14, 2008
By VIRGINIA HENNESSEY, Herald Salinas Bureau

Four Salinas police officers, the Salinas Police Department and Taser International Inc. face a federal jury in San Jose today in the case of a Salinas man who died after he was stunned 30 times by Taser-wielding police officers. The family of Robert Heston Jr. is alleging wrongful death, assault and battery, and police negligence in their suit against the city, its police department and officers Juan Ruiz, James Godwin, Lek Livingston and Michael Dominici.

Parents Betty Lou and Robert Heston Sr. and their daughter are suing Taser International, alleging the company fails to warn that its product can cause death when used repeatedly, in conjunction with chest compressions and against people under the influence of drugs.

U.S. District Judge James Ware laid out "undisputed facts" in the case in a ruling in which he dismissed some allegations and removed Salinas Police Chief Daniel Ortega as a defendant.

On Feb. 20, 2005, officers Dominici and Craig Fairbanks, who has since been dismissed as a defendant, responded to the Salinas home of Robert Heston Sr. after he called 911 to say his 40-year-old son was violent.

Both officers fired their Tasers at Heston Jr., but he did not fall. Ruiz and Livingston arrived and stunned the man without knocking him down. Godwin arrived and fired his Taser at Heston Jr., who fell, hit his head on a table and lay prone with his hands under him.

At that point, Godwin fired his Taser at least three more times, as did Livingston and Ruiz. Other officers arrived and were attempting to pull Heston Jr.'s arms from under him to handcuff him. Godwin, believing the man was resisting, again shot his Taser. Assuming his stun gun was having no effect, he replaced the cartridge and fired again.

Officers cuffed Heston and realized he was turning purple. They started CPR and raced him to Natividad Medical Center. Heston never regained consciousness and died the next day.

The family's attorney, John Burton of Pasadena, contends Heston was stunned in 5-second cycles 30 times.

The county's regular forensic pathologist, John Hain, was away at the time and the autopsy was performed by Dr. Terri Haddix, a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine. She concluded the primary cause of death was Tasing, with methamphetamine a contributing factor.

Ortega and Sheriff Mike Kanalakis then asked two other pathologists, including Hain, to review the autopsy. They concluded the primary cause of death was heart failure because of methamphetamine, with Tasing a secondary cause.

One issue to be examined in the trial is the validity of research that reportedly has shown repeated stuns from a Taser can induce cardiac arrest by changing blood chemistry.

The Monterey County District Attorney's Office cleared the officers of any criminal wrongdoing.

Burton will argue the police department showed an indifference to abusive Taser use by failing to track officers' usage.

The city, police department and officers are represented by Vincent Hurley and Assistant City Attorney Susan Matcham. Ware denied their motions to dismiss allegations of assault and battery and police negligence against each of the defendants.

He dismissed allegations against Ortega, ruling the chief was not individually responsible for the officers' actions and that claims against him in his official capacity were redundant to the claims against the city.

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