July 22, 2008
Drew Griffin and David Fitzpatrick, CNN
WINNFIELD, Louisiana (CNN) -- A police officer shocked a handcuffed Baron "Scooter" Pikes nine times with a Taser after arresting him on a cocaine charge.
He stopped twitching after seven, according to a coroner's report. Soon afterward, Pikes was dead.
Now the officer, since fired, could end up facing criminal charges in Pikes' January death after medical examiners ruled it a homicide.
Dr. Randolph Williams, the Winn Parish coroner, told CNN the 21-year-old sawmill worker was jolted so many times by the 50,000-volt Taser that he might have been dead before the last two shocks were delivered.
Williams ruled Pikes' death a homicide in June after extensive study.
Winn Parish District Attorney Christopher Nevils said he will decide on any charges against the ex-officer, Scott Nugent, once a Louisiana State Police report on the case is complete.
"It's taken several months for this case to even be properly addressed, so one has to wonder, why did it take so long?" said Carol Powell Lexing, a lawyer for the Pikes family. "Obviously, a wrongful death occurred."
Nugent's lawyer, Phillip Terrell, said his client followed proper procedure to subdue a man who outweighed him by 100 pounds. But Williams said Pikes was already handcuffed and on the ground when first hit with the Taser, after the 247-pound suspect was slow to follow police orders to get up.
Winnfield, a sleepy lumber town about 100 miles southeast of Shreveport, Louisiana, is best known as the birthplace of legendary Louisiana governors Huey and Earl Long. It's also about 45 miles northwest of Jena, Louisiana, where a racially charged assault case sparked a September 2007 demonstration by an estimated 15,000 people.
One of the teenage defendants in that case, Mychal Bell, is Pikes' first cousin -- and his lawyer was Powell Lexing.
Nugent is white; Pikes was black. His death led to demonstrations that drew several dozen people in Winnfield, where the population of about 15,000 is roughly half African-American.
"The family wants justice," Lexing said. "This is just another example of why it's very important to stay vigilant with these types of cases, on the injustice that's been perpetrated on the disadvantaged."
But Winnfield police Lt. Chuck Curry said race "isn't an issue at all" in the matter.
"This has come down to a police officer that was trying to apprehend a suspect that they had warrants for," he said. "He done what he thought he was trained to do to bring that subject into custody. At some point, something happened with his body that caused him to go into cardiac arrest or whatever." See how Tasers work »
According to police, Pikes was wanted on a charge of possession of cocaine when police tried to arrest him outside a shopping center January 12.
"He would not stop for the officer," Curry said. "At some point in there, he was Tased to bring him under control, and several hours later, died at the emergency room."
Terrell said Pikes was fighting Nugent "on uneven ground" amid obstructions such as concrete blocks and barbed wire.
"He's fighting, wrestling with an individual who weighs 100 pounds more than him," he said. "His partner had just come back to the police department from triple bypass surgery and could not assist Officer Nugent."
Terrell said his client "used every means possible" to take Pikes into custody before pulling out his Taser, a weapon Winnfield police purchased in 2007.
"The only thing he could have done other than to say, 'OK, we're going to let you go' is to beat him or Tase him. He did the right thing," Terrell said.
Williams, who ruled Pikes' death a homicide in June after extensive study, said Nugent fired his Taser at Pikes six times in less than three minutes -- shots recorded by a computer chip in the weapon's handle. Then officers put Pikes in the back of a cruiser and drove him to their police station -- where Nugent fired a seventh shot, directly against Pikes' chest.
"After he was given that drive stun to the chest, he was pulled out of the car onto the concrete, " Williams told CNN. "He was electroshocked two more times, which two officers noted that he had no neuromuscular response to those last two 50,000-volt electroshocks."
Williams said he had two nationally known forensic pathologists, including former New York city medical examiner Michael Baden, review the case before issuing his conclusions. He said it's possible Nugent was shocking a dead man the last two times he pulled the trigger.
"This fellow was talking in the back seat of the car prior to shot number seven," he said. "From that point on, it becomes questionable [if Pikes was still alive]."
Curry said Pikes told officers he suffered from asthma and had been using PCP and crack cocaine. But Williams said he found no sign of drug use in the autopsy, and no record of asthma in Pikes' medical history.
In the year since Winnfield police received Tasers, officers have used them 14 times, according to police records -- with 12 of the instances involving black suspects. Ten of the 14 incidents involved Nugent, who has no public disciplinary record.
Nugent was suspended after Pikes' death, and Winnfield's City Council voted 3-2 to fire him in May. He is appealing his dismissal, and his lawyer says he followed proper procedures in Pikes' case. He was trained in the use of the Taser by a senior police officer who was present during the incident that led to Pikes' death, Terrell said.
Curry said Taser International, the device's manufacturer, indicates that "multiple Tasings do not affect a person." But he said he could not explain why Pikes was shocked so many times, and said whether Nugent followed proper procedure was "yet to be determined."
But a copy of the Winnfield Police Department's Taser training manual, obtained by CNN, says the device "shall only be deployed in circumstances where it is deemed reasonably necessary to control a dangerous or violent subject." And Williams said regulations regarding the use of Tasers were not followed.
"It violated every aspect -- every single aspect -- of the department's policy about its use," the coroner said.
Winnfield has seen a spate of high-profile corruption cases in recent years. One of Nevils' predecessors as district attorney, Terry Reeves, killed himself amid allegations of embezzlement and extortion. The town's current police chief, Johnny Ray Carpenter, is a convicted drug offender who received a pardon from former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards who himself is now serving a federal prison term for racketeering.
And Carpenter's predecessor, Gleason Nugent -- the father of Pikes' arresting officer -- committed suicide in 2005, after allegations of fraud and vote buying in the race for police chief, an elected position in Winnfield.
Now Nevils is awaiting the state police report on Pikes' death, which will be presented to a grand jury for possible charges against Nugent -- a possibility Curry said would be a blow to the department.
"It's one of these no-win situations," he said. "No matter the outcome, nobody's going to win in this case."
WELCOME to TRUTH ... not TASERS
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
July 22, 2008