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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Taser-inquiry judge rejects excited delirium as cause of Nova Scotia man’s death

December 8, 2010
Globe and Mail

A Nova Scotia judge probing the death of a paranoid schizophrenic man who was tasered during violent struggles in custody rejected an official finding of excited delirium, calling the diagnosis “riddled with issues.”

Provincial Court Justice Anne Derrick noted in a massive report into the death of Howard Hyde that excited delirium is not recognized in the psychiatric lexicon and can be a convenient way to explain otherwise mysterious fatalities.

“The use of excited delirium to explain sudden deaths with no anatomic findings implies that the person had something wrong with them that caused their inexplicable death,” she wrote. “Manner of death may then be classified as ‘natural’ rather than ‘accidental.’ I ... do not accept that this would have been appropriate in Mr. Hyde’s case or in similar cases.”

Her finding contradicts that of the province’s chief medical officer, who determined that Mr. Hyde’s death in November of 2007 was due to “excited delirium due to paranoid schizophrenia.”

Judge Derrick concluded that Mr. Hyde’s death was accidental, resulting from the struggles to restrain him.

Mr. Hyde, a 45-year-old musician who was off his medication, was arrested for allegedly assaulting his wife. His booking spiralled out of control and he was tasered repeatedly and physically restrained as he tried to flee police headquarters.

He was revived by police and kept until morning in hospital, where he was given anti-psychotic medication. A psychiatric assessment was recommended but police said he had to be brought before a judge. The day after his arrest Mr. Hyde was transferred to a local jail. The assessment had not been done and he had no medication.

Mr. Hyde collapsed and died the next day after struggles with guards at the jail.

Judge Derrick concluded that both police and jail guards used reasonable and proportionate force. She found that the taser did not cause the Dartmouth man’s death and ruled out a ban on the weapons. But she determined that its deployment in this case, although within existing police guidelines, was “ill-advised.”

“In Mr. Hyde’s case it subjected an acutely anxious man to excruciating pain,” she wrote. “I have found on the evidence that the use of the [conducted-energy weapon] on Mr. Hyde worsened the situation.”

She concluded that Mr. Hyde did not assault any of the police officers and that physical contact he made with them was related to his “terrified attempts to get away .. or ward off the CEW.”

Judge Derrick recommended that police use these weapons on agitated people only as a last resort and that the Department of Justice should “reduce if not eliminate” reliance on resource materials from Taser International.

Lawyers and family members involved with the inquiry received their copies of the report at the same time as it was made public Wednesday and are not expected to comment until later in the day.

Judge Derrick began the fatality inquiry 11 months ago; it is the longest in the province’s history.

Surveillance video viewed during the inquiry showed part of the lead-up to the fracas at police headquarters. Other parts happened off camera but were audible.

The audio recording from the surveillance video indicated that tension escalated quickly in the fingerprint room, an area just off the booking room. Police testified that Mr. Hyde looked “scared” and tried to back away as police went to cut the knotted drawstring on his shorts.

Audio from the surveillance recording includes a passage that sounds like “we're just going to cut one of those balls off.” This, police said, was a reference to the drawstring.

Judge Derrick called the choice of words “unfortunate” but added that the officer couldn’t have known the effect they would have on Mr. Hyde.

Voices were raised and then someone – the three officers present testified under oath that it was not them – is heard making an expletive-laden statement resembling “you're going to be doing the dance next.”

Judge Derrick accepted that the officers had not said this. She wrote that the words had likely come from Mr. Hyde, “reflecting his perception” that police were going to harm him.

Seconds later, Mr. Hyde apparently tried to make a run for it. He was tackled behind the booking counter of police headquarters and tasered. He broke free, leapt over the counter and was tasered again in a nearby hallway. He stopped breathing there and had to be revived.

From there, Mr. Hyde was brought to hospital and then jail. He was convinced there were “demons” in the jail and struggled with guards. He collapsed and died in jail, 30 hours after his arrest.

“Mr. Hyde died because of physiological changes in his body brought on by an intense struggle involving restraint,” Judge Derrick concluded. “The manner of Mr. Hyde’s death was accidental.”

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