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Friday, March 26, 2010

Coroner's jury rules cause of death of man shot by Taser 'undetermined'

March 24, 2010

A pathologist called the January death of Patrick Burns a “textbook case” of excited delirium brought on by cocaine, but a coroner’s jury on Wednesday found the cause of Burns’ death to be “undetermined.”

Jurors returned the verdict after being told that Sangamon County sheriff’s deputies used Tasers 21 times while subduing Burns, who had broken into a Grandview home.

Burns, 50, had a history of drug use and bipolar disorder. Cocaine, marijuana, Wellbutrin and Prozac were in his system when he was brought, hog-tied, to Memorial Medical Center on Jan. 23. He died five days later.

John Yard, special agent with the Illinois State Police, said four deputies deployed Tasers 21 times as they struggled with Burns in a muddy ditch, but it is impossible to know how many times he was actually shocked. The wires that carry charges from stun guns to targets could have become detached as Burns flailed and fought, Yard said.

Bent handcuffs

Burns, an accountant for the state, fought so hard that he bent handcuffs, Yard testified, and sutures were needed to close cuff wounds on his ankles.

Burns had forced his way into a house, broken out windows, apparently with his hands, and beaten a woman inside, but he was outside and calm when deputies arrived.

One deputy went inside to check on the woman while three colleagues dealt with Burns. However, Burns’ demeanor suddenly changed when a deputy prepared to take photographs of his injuries, Yard said.

“He hops up and starts striking an officer in the abdomen,” Yard said. “He was shouting at the officers: ‘The rapture is coming. Drugs are good. Drugs are bad.’”

The deputies and Burns, clad in underwear and a long-sleeved t-shirt, were soon covered in mud and struggling, Yard said.

Paramedics who initially reported that deputies shocked Burns after he was in cuffs later said they believed the deputies were still trying to bring him under control when they saw the Tasers deployed, Yard testified.

The deputies eventually realized the shocks weren’t having any effect, the agent said.

‘It’s not working’

“One of the officers said ‘It’s not working, we need to do something else,’” Yard said.

But deputies had no good options, Yard said.

“In this case, I’m not sure what else they could have done short of striking him with batons and flashlights,” Yard said.

Before his run-in with deputies, Burns had beaten his fiancée and accused her of trying to poison him, Yard testified.

When Burns first left his home, less than a block from the house where he encountered deputies, his fiancée went outside to try to convince him to return. However, Yard said, she went back inside and locked the door when he hit her again.

She was still there when officers arrived and forced their way in after the struggle with Burns.

“They found her in the bedroom, cowering, covered up in sheets,” Yard testified. “She said she felt that he was capable of doing anything.”

Burns did not have a toxic level of cocaine in his system. However, Sangamon County Coroner Susan Boone and Dr. Jessica Bowman, the pathologist who conducted the autopsy, told the inquest jury he died of excited delirium due to cocaine abuse.

Excited delirium

Excited delirium is a condition in which the brain is “on hyper-overdrive,” Bowman said. If the brain stem that controls vital functions is affected, death results.

“It could be a textbook case for instructing students -- it’s that classic and that tragic,” Bowman said. “The only saving grace is that no one else lost their life in the process.”

Sheriff Neil Williamson, who sat through the inquest, said he was surprised that, despite Bowman’s conclusion, the coroner’s jury returned an “undetermined” verdict.

“I was convinced it was cocaine-induced excited delirium,” Williamson said. “I support the deputies 100 percent. We still believe in the use of the Taser.”

Boone praised deputies, saying there could have been more deaths “but for the police officers.”

State’s Attorney John Schmidt said his office is reviewing the case. He said he didn’t know whether any charges will be filed or when the review will be complete.

Michael Burns, Patrick Burns’ father, said he wasn’t satisfied with the coroner’s investigation.

“They really didn’t give us the answers we were looking for,” he said.

Tense exchange with relatives

During a tense exchange with Patrick Burns’ relatives while an inquest jury was deliberating Wednesday, Sangamon County Coroner Susan Boone and Dr. Jessica Bowman, the pathologist Boone hired to conduct the autopsy, defended their work, but refused to answer several questions.

Richard Burns, Patrick Burns’ brother, started the exchange by telling Boone that she had promised the family that they could ask questions of Bowman, whom the coroner had earlier defended in front of the inquest jury. Boone told the jury she felt she needed to address Bowman’s qualifications due to media coverage that had created “confusion” in the community.

“Dr. Bowman is extremely thorough,” Boone told the jury. “She is trustworthy and unbiased.”

When Boone brought Bowman in to answer questions with the jury out of the room, Burns began by asking the doctor if she had taken a forensic pathology examination administered by the American Board of Pathology, which certifies forensic pathologists.

“You know what, you don’t have to answer,” Boone interjected.

Bowman did not answer the question.

“I know for a fact that exam does not reflect competence in the field,” the doctor said.

When Burns asked whether Bowman conducts autopsies for other counties, Bowman said, “I don’t think you’re concerned about your brother.”

When Burns asked Boone if she had conducted her own probe or relied on an investigation conducted by the Illinois State Police, which the Sangamon County sheriff’s office called to investigate the case, the coroner did not answer. Instead, Boone turned to ISP special agent John Yard, who said that he had investigated.

“We worked really hard to put this together to tell you what happened to Patrick,” Boone told the family.

Bowman offered her condolences and said Patrick Burns probably felt no pain and is feeling no pain now.

“I’m sorry,” the pathologist told Michael Burns, Patrick Burns’ father.

“So are we,” Michael Burns replied.

Correction: A headline on a previous version of this story implied that Burns' death was caused by a Taser. As the story says, a coroner's jury found the cause of death to be "undetermined."

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