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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dziekanski would still be alive if not for RCMP confrontation: pathologist

April 29, 2009
The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER, B.C. — Robert Dziekanski would likely still be alive if he hadn't been stunned multiple times with a Taser and restrained on the floor of Vancouver's airport by four RCMP officers, says an expert pathologist.

Dr. John Butt, who has served as chief medical examiner in Alberta and Nova Scotia, told a public inquiry into Dziekanski's death that the stress of the confrontation - including the use of the Taser - likely caused the Polish man's heart to stop.

He said it was a death that could have been avoided.

"Is it fair to say that, in your opinion, had Mr. Dziekanski not been Tasered, not been restrained on the floor, that he would still be alive today?" asked Walter Kosteckyj, the lawyer for Dziekanski's mother.

"I suspect that, yes," Butt replied during his testimony Wednesday.

"Is that a strong opinion?" asked Kosteckyj.

"Yes," replied Butt.

The inquiry has heard widely differing opinions on how much, if at all, the Taser is to blame for Dziekanski's death.

Butt and the pathologist who conducted the autopsy on Dziekanski say the weapon may have contributed, while two experts paid by the company that makes Tasers insist it played no role at all.

Butt, who reviewed slides from Dziekanski's autopsy, said the stress of his agitation, multiple Taser stuns and being restrained by police on the airport floor likely contributed to his heart stopping.

Still, he couldn't say how significant a factor the Taser played.

Butt was called in to review several reports provided to the inquiry, and he agreed with the autopsy's finding that Dziekanski's cause of death could be described as "sudden death during restraint."

It's a little-understood term used for deaths in custody when there is no clear, anatomical cause of the death.

Butt disagreed with several findings in the autopsy report and in other reports provided to the commission.

For example, he said he could find no evidence that Dziekanski's heart was damaged due to chronic alcoholism. That's a contributing factor listed in the autopsy report.

Butt said Dziekanski's liver and brain showed classic signs of alcoholism, but the man's heart didn't appear to be affected.

"I just don't agree with that," said Butt. "I don't think there is alcoholic heart disease so I don't think that it has any role (in Dziekanski's death)."

He acknowledged that he didn't have an opportunity to examine the heart himself, but he said it would be a finding that could only be confirmed through microscopic slides, which he had access to.

A lawyer for the federal government told the inquiry Dziekanski may have been on heart medication, however Butt said there was no indication of that in his medical records, including from a mandatory health exam required to immigrate to Canada.

Butt, who worked on a report about Tasers for the B.C. Police Complaints Commission four years ago, said he was also concerned the autopsy report barely mentions the fact that Dziekanski was stunned with a Taser.

Dr. Charles Lee, who conducted the autopsy, told the inquiry earlier in the week that the Taser may have contributed to Dziekanski's death. But his report makes one mention of the weapon, only to explain marks on Dziekanski's body.

"I don't see how one could possibly not mention the Taser in the commentary in this case," said Butt. "Whether or not that's going to say that it's hugely relevant to the cause of death, it's enormously relevant to the events in this case."

Lee has told the inquiry that while he knew Dziekanski had been shocked by a Taser, he was not aware he was shocked multiple times.

His autopsy report, along with two others provided to the commission, also mention excited delirium, a controversial term often used in in-custody deaths that has since been removed from RCMP training manuals.

Butt acknowledged the controversy surrounding the term, and also noted that in most cases where it is used, subjects are on drugs or suffering from mental illness such as paranoid schizophrenia.

Neither was the case with Dziekanski.

While he couldn't say whether Dziekanski was suffering from any type of delirium, he said it's not something that could be detected in an autopsy, and the video of the confrontation doesn't provide enough information to make that determination.

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