Autopsy: Cocaine, not Taser, killed man

From The Oregonian, March 25, 2006 – not available online

Timothy W. Grant died from a cocaine overdose and not from the two Taser stun gun shocks that a Portland officer applied Monday, the Oregon state medical examiner announced Friday.

Dr. Karen Gunson said she found a very high level of cocaine in Grant’s blood, which caused a state of “excited delirium,” evidenced by his high blood temperature, agitation and incoherent shouting.

Excited delirium remains a controversial condition that increasingly has been identified as contributing to deaths following Taser use and has prompted police and human rights groups in North America to call for greater independent study.

Grant, 46, went into cardiopulmonary arrest –he stopped breathing and his heart stopped beating. When he reached Legacy Emanuel Hospital & Health Center, his body temperature was recorded at 104 degrees, the medical examiner said.

Gunson ruled out the Taser either as the cause or a contributing factor in Grant ‘s death, citing the fact that Grant was still conscious, talking and moving after the Taser shocks and that several minutes had passed before he had trouble breathing.

“The fact that he had a Taser applied and then was able to communicate, move and do other activities after the application of the Taser rules it out,” she said. “Would he have died without the Taser? Yes, in my opinion. . . . He died because he had cocaine in his system.”

The death was ruled accidental. The Multnomah County District Attorney’s office has decided not to present the case to a grand jury because there is no evidence the death resulted from police use of force, said Norm Frink, the county’s chief deputy district attorney. The officers involved will return to work.

Police encountered Grant after people saw him running in and out of traffic along Northeast Sandy Boulevard. He collapsed at the corner of Northeast 24th Avenue shortly after 3 p.m. Monday. Witnesses said Grant was foaming at the mouth, talking gibberish and not coherent.

Southeast Precinct Officer Paul K. Park was the first officer to respond, and he tried to get Grant out of the street. When Grant didn’t respond to his orders, Park tried unsuccessfully to handcuff the man, who was lying on his stomach.

Park applied his Taser in a “drive-stun” mode twice, meaning he placed it directly against Grant instead of firing electrified probes into his skin.

From the autopsy, Gunson said she was able to identify the spots where the Taser was used: on Grant ‘s lower left back, and behind his right shoulder by his neck. She also found scrapes and bruises on his hands and knees.

When medical workers arrived within minutes of the Taser shocks, Grant was still moving and verbal, Gunson said. The paramedics went back to their ambulance to get a gurney and found upon their return that Grant was unresponsive.

Grant, who had been living with his parents in Medford for almost a year, was in Portland visiting a girlfriend during the weekend, and he had lunch with his sister in the city around noon Monday.

The autopsy revealed that Grant likely ingested cocaine about a half-hour before his death. Although the level of cocaine in his blood was significantly high, at 588 nanograms per milliliter, he may have simply taken his normal amount of the drug but reacted in this way because his body was no longer accustomed to it, Gunson said.

Kerry Avalon, one of Grant ‘s younger sisters, said Grant had struggled in the past with cocaine abuse, but had been clean for the past two years.

Deaths in which “excited delirium” is listed as a contributing cause in Oregon have not been frequent. Gunson cited five to six cases in the state within the past two or three years. But she said the condition is not new and was first identified 1849 in relation to schizophrenic patients. “A lot of times it attracts attention because people are acting so bizarre, and often police feel they have to contain them to protect the public or themselves,” Gunson said.

Portland police and other law enforcement agencies contend that the Taser, which delivers a 50,000-volt shock to temporarily immobilize a suspect, prevents the use of excessive force. “We see it as another tool to control or defuse a situation, without having to escalate to baton strikes or bean bag or deadly force situations,” said Sgt. Bob Day, who oversees Portland police Taser training.

Recently, police have been advised to avoid repeated Taser cycles, which each last 5 seconds, when dealing with a person in the “excited delirium” state because they’re at greater risk of impaired breathing and respiration. Gunson said the two stuns Grant received are not considered “repeated” cycles.

Amnesty International and the Canadian Police Research Centre have called for more studies into whether there’s a relationship between excited delirium and deaths in police custody after Taser use or other restraints after identifying similar cases in North America.

“We continue to be concerned that when you mix a Taser with any type of condition, whether it’s drug use or a heart condition, that the Taser can exacerbate those conditions and lead to death,” said Mona Cadena, a San Francisco field organizer for Amnesty International.

The announcement of Grant ‘s cause of death Friday came four hours before his family held a memorial service in Medford.

The family has hired Portland attorney Bernie Jolle to look into Grant ‘s death. But Friday, they said their focus would be remembering the son and brother they loved.