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Monday, April 27, 2009

RCMP didn't tell pathologist Dziekanski suffered multiple Taser stuns, inquiry hears

The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy on Robert Dziekanski was not told by the Mounties that the Polish immigrant had been stunned by a Taser as many as five times, a public inquiry into his death heard Monday.

Charles Lee testified that two RCMP investigators sat in on the autopsy, and that they never said the energy weapon had been fired at least five times at Dziekanski.

"Isn't that a significant fact, sir?" Walter Kosteckyj, the lawyer representing Dziekanski's mother, asked Lee.

"It's something that would have been nice to know," Lee said about the number of shocks deployed from the Taser. "But I don't think it would have ultimately changed my final cause of death."

Dziekanski died Oct. 14, 2007, at Vancouver airport's international arrivals area after being confronted by four Mounties, all of whom were summoned after he became unruly. Dziekanski stopped breathing as he lay handcuffed on the floor.

Dziekanski's heart stopped as a result of the stress of both the Taser stuns and the struggle with police as they pinned him to the ground and handcuffed him, Lee testified.

RCMP officers at Vancouver airport discharged a Taser five times while restraining Robert Dziekanski on Oct. 14, 2007. (Paul Pritchard)
Dziekanski died in a situation that has come to be known as "sudden death following restraint," a phenomenon for which pathologists have no real explanation, said Lee, who has performed as many as 3,000 autopsies.

Kosteckyj also questioned Lee about what he saw in an amateur video of the incident.

Lee agreed that it looked like Dziekanski was suffering from being jolted with the Taser and appeared in pain, and his body was spasming.

But Lee couldn't give an opinion as to which contributed more to Dziekanski's death — the stress of the Taser stuns or the physical struggle with police as they pinned him to the ground.

Combination of factors
Lee said he doesn't believe the Taser was responsible because sudden death occurs in other cases when the energy weapon is not used.

"In those situations, the other forms of restraint were also clearly significant," he said.

The Taser jolts "probably contributed to his death in the same way that the tackling by the police officers played a role in his death. I can't say one is more important than the other," Lee said.

But he did offer an opinion about the snoring sound Dziekanski made moments after being handcuffed.

"That's probably when he started to become unconscious, and that's probably about the time he stopped breathing and his heart stopped," Lee testified.

Lee said Dziekanski was in relatively good health, although there were signs of atrophy on a portion of the brain, an enlarged heart and a fatty liver.

"It certainly suggested he was [a] chronic alcoholic," he said.

A toxicologist is expected to testify this week at the inquiry.

The provincially mandated inquiry was called in the wake of Dziekanski's death and is being overseen by Thomas Braidwood, a retired B.C. Court of Appeal justice. Braidwood will make recommendations to prevent similar deaths and he could make findings of misconduct against the officers or anyone else involved.

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