November 12, 2008
By Jenna Carlesso, The Journal News
Growing up in Valley Cottage, Joanna Blair remembers her younger brother as a kind, athletic boy who liked acting and played clarinet in the Nyack High School band.
Coming to terms with the events that led to Howard Hyde's descent into mental illness, culminating in his death in November 2007 on the floor of a jailhouse cell in Nova Scotia, has been a difficult process for her.
But what transpired in the time between when he was arrested and when he dropped to the ground unconscious has haunted Blair.
As the justice system continues to investigate Hyde's death, she and other family members are preparing to return to his grave for the anniversary of his death.
"There's a lot we're still questioning," Blair, 47, said recently. "What I'd like now is some resolution."
'Severe fear' of Tasers
The chain of events triggering Hyde's collapse began with a phone call in the early hours of Nov. 21, 2007, his sister said. Hyde, who was 45 and living in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, apparently had gone off the medication he had been taking to keep his mental episodes at bay. Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in the early 1980s, he had acted out before, Blair said.
Hyde's common-law wife was on the phone with a psychiatric crisis hotline when he barged into the room and started hitting her. A respondent on the other end of the line called Halifax regional police, Blair recounted.
By the time they arrived, Hyde had fled from his apartment and disappeared into the woods. Officers found him 45 minutes later and charged him with assault. Still in an excited state, Hyde was taken to the police booking station about 1 a.m., where he struggled with officers, who used a Taser, Blair said. The jolt sent him into medical distress, she claims. "I still wonder why they had to Taser him," Blair said. "Howard had a severe fear of Tasering."
That morning wasn't the first time Hyde had experienced Taser shock. Officers had used a Taser on him less than three years earlier, as he lay on the bathroom floor of another apartment in Dartmouth, where he lived alone. Neighbors had heard him yelling out the windows and called police, she said.
After the more recent incident, Hyde was rushed to a hospital in the area, where he stayed for several hours before being discharged into police custody. "We were disappointed that the hospital released him without considering some kind of mental treatment," said Blair, who was living two hours away in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. "I still don't know why they sent him to a general hospital, instead of a psychiatric one. Instead of getting help, he went back to jail."
Hyde spent that night locked up in the Burnside Correctional Center in Dartmouth, pending a court appearance the next morning. When correction officers were preparing him for his arraignment on Nov. 22, 2007, another struggle ensued. This time, Hyde dropped to the floor of his cell, motionless.
He was pronounced dead soon after.
Rockland County roots
Years before the grimmer memories surfaced, Blair remembers a time when her brother would happily hit baseballs around the yard and play music for his school productions.
Blair and Hyde, both graduates of Nyack High School, were raised by their mother, Elizabeth Hyde, on Mountainview Avenue in Valley Cottage. "Howard had a fair number of friends," Blair recalled. "He played baseball and enjoyed acting."
While in school, she and Hyde held jobs as paper carriers for The Journal News. Hyde went on to work in the newspaper's circulation department for some time, she said.
"He was a nice young boy, a little quiet and reserved," recalled their cousin John Ratcliff, who lives in South Nyack. "He was a laid-back kid; not one to be the center of attention." But the "quiet" kid sometimes suffered unwanted attention, Blair said. She remembers a pair of bullies who would follow Hyde around after school. "One time, they held him down in the middle of the road when cars were coming," she said. "Another time, they dangled my brother over a Thruway overpass."
The siblings moved away from Valley Cottage after high school. Hyde went to college in upstate New York for two years before dropping out. Blair graduated in 1983 from the Cooper Union in New York City. Both moved to Nova Scotia in the mid-1980s.
Holding out hope
After Hyde's death, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Nova Scotia justice minister launched separate investigations into the use of Tasers. Less than two months ago, police and representatives from the minister's officer sat down with Hyde's family for a "briefing session" on his death, Blair said. According to a medical examiner's report, Hyde died of excited delirium due to paranoid schizophrenia, she said.
Halifax police contend that the death was not linked to the Taser.
"I've never heard of someone dying because of a Taser," Constable Jeff Carr of the Halifax Regional Police said recently. "We've had people die in our cells, but never as a result of Taser use."
A Taser gun shoots two electrical probes that lodge in a person's skin, then send electrical pulses through wires into the person's body, stunning the nervous system.
The department continues to use Tasers, he said. "Our policies have been updated, but there are no major changes," Carr added.
But Ron Honberg, the legal director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said there have been a "disturbing" number of people who died after a Taser was used on them. "In the United States, a fairly large number of people have died after being Tasered," he said. "Some of the circumstances make you raise your eyebrows. Tasers are very aggressively marketed without a real standard surrounding their usage."
Blair also wondered why Hyde was in jail and not in a hospital in the first place.
Mental-health advocates say this isn't an uncommon situation for people with mental disabilities. "Nationally, many people with disabilities inappropriately wind up in the criminal justice system because there's a lack of treatment resources," said Irene Levine, a psychologist in Orangeburg and co-author of "Schizophrenia for Dummies." "Many times clinicians don't provide outreach for these people," Levine said. "When people are untreated for a mental illness, they are more prone to violence. It's a tragic story that's repeated over and over."
Honberg said the answer lies in a stronger partnership between police and the mental-health system. "The ultimate answer is teaching police techniques on how to respond to these people," he said. "We don't believe they should be turning to Tasers unless they're in imminent danger. Tasers should be a last resort."
In the meantime, the justice minister has pledged to continue investigating Hyde's death.
Despite her hardships, Blair said she believes Hyde's death was not in vain. She envisions a justice system with a deeper empathy for those with mental disabilities.
"I feel there was a purpose to this," she said. "I believe his death is going to bring a focus to this and have a critical impact on this issue."
For the first time in a year, Blair is preparing to make a trip to Pine Grove Cemetery in Shelburne. There, in an unmarked grave, her brother was laid to rest. A stone tablet will be pressed into the earth, etched with his name, birth date and the date of his death.
"I do have a sense of peace. ... But I'm still holding out for answers," she said.
WELCOME to TRUTH ... not TASERS
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
November 12, 2008