November 1, 2009
By SARAH BURGE
An Inland coroner's office has ruled for the first time that Taser shocks contributed to a person's death.
Marlon Acevedo, 35, was high on PCP when he clashed with Riverside police one year ago on Halloween, according to the coroner's report. He was in the street screaming at passing cars, and officers struck him with batons and shocked him several times, the report said. He died at a hospital less than an hour later.
PCP intoxication is listed in the Riverside County sheriff-coroner's office report as the primary cause of death, but an enlarged heart, Taser shocks and the physical confrontation with police are cited as significant factors.
Tasers deliver an electric shock by shooting a pair of wires tipped with sharp barbs that pierce the skin and are widely used by Inland law enforcement agencies, including the Riverside County and San Bernardino County sheriff's departments, as an alternative to lethal force.
Some critics, such as the ACLU and Amnesty International, say Tasers can lead to fatal heart problems, and that people who are mentally impaired or who are on drugs are at a higher risk of dying, especially when receiving multiple or prolonged shocks. Coroners and medical examiners elsewhere in the United States have, on occasion, determined that Tasers played a role in deaths.
Tasers have been used hundreds of time around the Inland area in recent years, and people have died after the shocks in a handful of cases. In those few deaths, coroner's officials typically have cited drug use or serious heart problems, not the Taser, as factors.
Dr. Scott McCormick, who performed the autopsy on Acevedo, said, in that case too, the Taser was one factor among many, the most important of which was PCP intoxication. Weighing all factors, including the proximity of Taser shocks to his time of death, McCormick decided the Taser should be listed as a factor.
"Absent the use of the Taser, he most likely still would have died. I don't think this is a reason to demonize the use of the Taser," McCormick said.
Riverside Police Department spokeswoman Sgt. Jaybee Brennan declined to comment on the case. Acevedo's family has sued in federal court, alleging wrongful death and excessive force.
Deputy Chief Boris Robinson of the Riverside County Sheriff's Department said this is the only case in which the coroner's office has cited Taser shocks as a contributing factor. Sandy Fatland, spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County coroner's office, said her office has never cited them as a factor.
One of the Inland people dying after being shocked was a 19-year-old at a mental health facility in San Bernardino. He appeared agitated and was wearing a gas mask when police tried to restrain him last month. Two others died in Riverside County in July and August after encounters with sheriff's deputies near Hemet and in Moreno Valley. Authorities said the men behaved as if they had mental problems or were under the influence of drugs. Details about the causes of death in all three cases have not been released.
TASER International, the company that manufactures Taser stun guns, says the vast majority of Taser deployments have resulted in minor or no injuries.
According to a recent Taser training bulletin, the company does not agree that Tasers cause heart problems.
"Arrest scenarios often involve individuals who are in crisis and are at heightened risk of serious injury or death, regardless of actions taken by law enforcement," the bulletin says.
Acevedo was in the street outside his home on Cypress Avenue the night of Oct. 31, 2008, yelling at passing cars and screaming that he wanted to die, the report said. Two officers approached Acevedo and he "assumed a fighting stance," the coroner's report said.
When the officers tried to take him into custody, Acevedo resisted, and both officers used their batons to strike him in the arms and legs, the report says. Police officials have said Acevedo punched an officer in the eye. One officer shocked Acevedo with a Taser, which appeared to have no effect, the report said, so the officer delivered four more shocks. Finally, the officers handcuffed him.
Police officials have said Acevedo began kicking, and a third officer helped restrain him using a device called a "hobble" that controls the legs.
When paramedics arrived, Acevedo was still breathing, but soon his heart stopped, the report said. He was pronounced dead at a hospital less than an hour after the confrontation began.
According to the report, Acevedo had numerous blunt-impact injuries to his limbs, head, face and abdomen. A Taser barb was still embedded in the upper-left part of his abdomen and there were three other puncture wounds that appeared to be from Taser barbs.
Toxicology tests showed evidence of PCP and marijuana use, and Acevedo had a history of heroin use, the report said.
Samer Habbas, the attorney representing Acevedo's relatives, said they have sued the Police Department, Chief Russ Leach, officers Daniel Koehler, Jeffrey Ratkovich and James Heiting, and others. The complaint alleges the officers violated Acevedo's civil rights, wrongfully caused his death and used excessive force -- with batons and the Taser -- among other accusations.
"We're talking about a mentally incapacitated person," Habbas said. "They immediately took an aggressive approach."
"Because he has PCP in his system, he no longer is going to be considered a human being?" Habbas said.
Acevedo had two children, then ages 2 and 4. Family members could not be reached for comment.
In cases where a suspect dies in police custody, it is routine for the district attorney's office to review the case, but criminal charges rarely are filed against officers. District attorney's office spokesman John Hall said the Acevedo case is under investigation.
WELCOME to TRUTH ... not TASERS
Sunday, November 01, 2009
November 1, 2009