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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Opening statements in trial over Robert Heston's death

May 15, 2008
By JIM JOHNSON, Monetery County Herald

SAN JOSE — With dangerously high levels of methamphetamine coursing through his veins, Robert Heston Jr. was so agitated and paranoid that he was apparently convinced someone or something was in the attic of his family's Rodeo Avenue home one day in February 2005. Heston was so confused that he allegedly went on a rampage through the house, busting up furniture and breaking a window. He even attacked his own father, though one witness said the 40-year-old Salinas man appeared to think he was protecting his dad.

So when Salinas police arrived at the house, and initial attempts to restrain Heston failed, several officers resorted to repeatedly using their Tasers on the well-built former high school football star even after he had been knocked off his feet and was lying face-down on the floor.

Attorneys for both sides, who gave opening statements in a San Jose federal courtroom Wednesday, have agreed the officers "cycled" their Tasers at least 25 times during the incident, and some of the shocks were delivered simultaneously. But the defense claims some of the discharges missed their target.

Heston lost consciousness and died the next day, apparently from a combination of methamphetamine intoxication, an enlarged heart due to long-term drug abuse and the Taser shocks.

An attorney for Heston's family told jurors they should hold Taser International Inc., four Salinas police officers and the city's police department accountable for Heston's death.

Speaking before U.S. District Court Judge James Ware, attorney John Burton argued that the Taser manufacturer should be held accountable for failing to adequately investigate the potential effect of repeated shocks on people using drugs and for not properly warning police about the dangers. He said he would present evidence that shows repeated Taser shocks could cause a heart attack. Burton said Salinas police are also responsible because they should not have shocked Heston after he fell to the floor, which he said is against department policy.

Burton, who is representing Heston's parents, Betty Lou and Robert Heston Sr., and his sister, acknowledged the younger Heston was struggling with drugs, had gone through numerous rehabilitation attempts, spent time in prison and had previous run-ins with police. But Burton said Heston and his family still held out hope for him.

"Robert Heston may well have realized redemption, as many have," Burton told the jury, "but that's not going to happen because he has passed away."

Attorneys for the stun gun manufacturer and Salinas police countered during their opening statements that Tasers have been extensively studied and proven safe as an alternative to deadly firearms, and that they don't cause death on their own.

Attorney Vince Hurley, who is defending the Salinas Police Department and officers Juan Ruiz, James Godwin, Lek Livingston and Michael Dominici, said the officers' actions were reasonable and within the parameters of their training.

Hurley said officers had identified Heston as being in a state of "excited delirium," which precluded the officers from attempting to physically restrain him until he had been incapacitated. He said the number of Taser "cycles" could be explained by Heston's extreme agitation due to the meth and refusal to go down when shocked.

Hurley said testimony will show Heston actually ripped some of the Taser probes off his body and was still struggling after falling to the ground. He said police officers are trained to deliver multiple Taser shocks simultaneously to make up for missed discharges, which he said happens occasionally.

"This is not a perfect device," Hurley said, but added, "it is not a medical hazard to use this device."

Taser International's attorney, Mildred O'Linn, defended her client's product as "likely the most tested device in law enforcement" and said its use has changed law enforcement by saving numerous lives through the use of nondeadly force. She admitted the Taser is "not perfect" but called it "state-of-the-art."

O'Linn said there's not a "scintilla" of evidence proving the Taser caused Heston's death, and she called him an "extremely violent individual" who was acting "bizarrely."

She said there is no evidence Taser use contributes to heart attacks in humans, and added that doctors will testify that the best chance of survival for people who are high on meth is that they are restrained as soon as possible and given prompt medical treatment.

Tasers are "the best option available in a police officer's worst nightmare," she said.

Following opening statements, testimony began when Salinas Police officer Craig Fairbanks, the department's Taser training expert, and Clifford Satree, a friend and roommate of Heston's at the Sun Street Center — a Salinas drug treatment center — took the stand.

Satree testified that Heston Sr. called him to the house to calm down his son, and it was Satree who called 911 when the situation continued to worsen.

A recording of Satree's 911 call was played in court, and the jury listened to his play-by-play of the incident. At one point, Satree told the 911 dispatcher that Heston Jr. was "wiggin' out" and "going through a window," and later said police were trying to stun Heston but it wasn't working.

"Get him, get him," Satree can be heard saying on the tape. "He's Tased. He's Tased, but he's not going down. Now he's down."

Heston's case is not the only Taser-related lawsuit working its way through the courts. Burton is also representing the plaintiffs in the case against two Seaside police officers and Taser International in the August 2004 death of Michael Rosa. A hearing is scheduled for June 6.

A third Taser-related local death occurred when Jaime Coronel of Castroville died in January 2006 after being stunned several times by Monterey County Sheriff's deputies.

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