August 9, 2008
By Jonathan D. Silver, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Let the battle of the forensic pathologists begin.
Dr. Cyril H. Wecht will perform a second autopsy on a man who died after a confrontation with Swissvale police. Howard Messer, a lawyer representing the family of Andre D. Thomas, yesterday confirmed that the noted forensic pathologist and former Allegheny County medical examiner has been retained by the Swissvale man's family.
An autopsy by the county medical examiner's office was inconclusive pending toxicology and other tests. However, both Medical Examiner Dr. Karl Williams and District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. have said Mr. Thomas' body bore no signs of excessive force.
Mr. Messer said photographs he has seen of Mr. Thomas's body tell a different story. "There is evidence of trauma to the body," Mr. Messer said. He declined to elaborate. Mr. Messer said he believed county officials were acting appropriately to investigate the circumstances surrounding Mr. Thomas's death Tuesday.
Dr. Wecht will likely perform the second post-mortem examination today between Mr. Thomas's funeral service and burial.
Dr. Williams also said it's not uncommon for families to request second autopsies, and he doesn't believe Dr. Wecht's examination will yield any dramatically new information. "We did a complete autopsy," he said. "The findings are the findings."
Mr. Thomas was pronounced dead at 12:46 a.m. Tuesday at UPMC Braddock, less than an hour after scuffling with three Swissvale police officers on Hawthorne Avenue. Police responded to numerous 911 calls of a man pounding on doors saying people were trying to kill him. Officers arrived, believing that Mr. Thomas might be a victim. But things changed when police decided that Mr. Thomas was acting so irrationally he was a danger to himself and others, Mr. Zappala said.
When Mr. Thomas tried to run away, one officer shocked him with her Taser three times until he was incapacitated enough to be handcuffed. Even so, Mr. Zappala said Mr. Thomas demonstrated "almost superhuman" strength in resisting attempts to handcuff him. Several witnesses said they saw police stomp and punch Mr. Thomas. Others told investigators from the Allegheny County Police that officers did not rough him up.
Mr. Zappala said Mr. Thomas's behavior and symptoms -- unusual strength, irrational behavior, dilated pupils, normal breathing that suddenly becomes labored and a normal pulse that rapidly weakens -- were similar to those exhibited in other people who died while in a state of "excited delirium" brought on by acute cocaine toxicity.
Investigators are looking into whether Mr. Thomas was high on the night of his death.
Toxicology tests are still weeks away from being available, but Mr. Zappala indicated that investigators were exploring the possibility that Mr. Thomas bought drugs in Braddock between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m., 50 minutes before his encounter with police. Paramedics at the scene treated him as a possible overdose.
Mr. Messer said Dr. Wecht will not be making any public statements about the results of his examination. "He's under a confidentiality agreement with me not to talk to the media about this case," Mr. Messer said.
However, in an interview Thursday before he was retained, Dr. Wecht expressed skepticism about excited delirium -- especially if there is any indication of excessive force or positional asphyxia. "Excited delirium is a convenient fallback for medical examiners, coroners and their forensic pathologists around the country," Dr. Wecht said. "The convenient thing about that diagnosis is that it's not susceptible to scientific disproof. It's not susceptible to scientific proof, either. It's based on nothing more than anecdotal situations."
In cases of positional asphyxia, prolonged pressure on the back or neck while someone is prone -- such as while they are being handcuffed and restrained -- can cause death.
Mr. Zappala flatly stated this week that Mr. Thomas did not die from positional asphyxia. He said one Swissvale officer did put a knee to the small of Mr. Thomas's back while detaining him, but that Mr. Thomas was then sitting upright.
In addition to setting up the possibility of dueling autopsy reports that reach different conclusions, the hiring of Dr. Wecht puts him squarely at odds with an old nemesis: Mr. Zappala. Dr. Wecht and Mr. Zappala have feuded for years, most significantly over the DA's successful move to end Dr. Wecht's ability to hold open inquests in cases of suspicious deaths. When Dr. Wecht was still county coroner, he would routinely hold fact-finding hearings when people died while in police custody or at the hands of police. Those inquests were conducted as an independent investigation parallel to police probes.
Mr. Zappala effectively outmaneuvered Dr. Wecht and put an end to open inquests. He argued that coroner's inquests were duplicative, illegal and unnecessary and could compromise law enforcement investigations.
Even this week, Dr. Wecht touted the importance of an impartial, transparent fact-finding hearing in the case of a death like Mr. Thomas's.
WELCOME to TRUTH ... not TASERS
Saturday, August 09, 2008
August 9, 2008