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Coroner Rules Cocaine, Not Taser, Killed Prisoner
    #4595998 - 08/29/05 08:09 PM (11 years, 3 months ago)

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/27/nyregion/27dead.html

Coroner Rules Cocaine, Not Taser, Killed Prisoner

A man who died in police custody last month soon after officers shocked him with a Taser stun gun died of a cocaine overdose, not from the shock, the city medical examiner said yesterday.


Terrence L. Thomas was shocked with a stun gun, but cocaine killed him, the medical examiner says.

Investigators had said that the man, Terrence L. Thomas, 35, might have swallowed crack cocaine before detectives arrested him early on the morning of July 27.

After his arrest, in a holding cell at the 105th Precinct station house, Mr. Thomas became unruly and refused medical attention, the police said, prompting officers to shock him with the Taser. Less than an hour later, he was pronounced dead at Queens Hospital Center in Jamaica.

A spokeswoman for the medical examiner said that the Taser did not cause or contribute to Mr. Thomas's death, which was ruled an accident.

Mr. Thomas's mother, Dorothy Thomas, reached at her home in Hempstead Village, referred questions about the findings to her lawyer.

More than 110 people have died nationwide after being shocked with the Taser, raising safety concerns about the weapon, which incapacitates subjects by firing an electrified barb, then delivering a 50,000-volt shock.

Critics of the weapon, including Amnesty International, have called for a moratorium on its use until independent research is concluded on its effects, especially on people who have heart conditions, use drugs or are in states of excited delirium.

The Police Department had said that the use of the Taser on Mr. Thomas was justified, citing guidelines that allow officers to use the weapon to subdue people under the influence of drugs or alcohol who might harm themselves or other people.

In the police station's holding cell that morning, Mr. Thomas told another prisoner that he had swallowed cocaine, then started banging his head against the wall, the police said.

When a group of eight police officers and Fire Department medical workers were unable to subdue him, officers fired the Taser at him, the police said. Even after he was shocked, the police said, Mr. Thomas continued to resist, until he was pronounced dead at the hospital some 45 minutes later.

The finding yesterday was unlikely to dampen the national debate about the use of Tasers, which are promoted by the manufacturer, Taser International, as a nonlethal option for law enforcement agencies.

Medical examiners have rarely cited the Taser as a cause of death, and the weapon's detractors charge that because studies have focused on healthy people, it is difficult to divine the effects on victims like Mr. Thomas.

The New York medical examiner declined to provide details about Mr. Thomas's case, citing confidentiality rules, but Dr. Bruce P. Levy, the Tennessee chief medical examiner - who previously worked in the New York medical examiner's office - said that despite a scarcity of research on people under the influence of drugs, doctors in his field could still reasonably make a determination that a Taser did not play a role in a death.

"One would always prefer to have a body of scientific proof about anything we form an opinion of," he said.

Dr. Levy noted that an investigation into a case like Mr. Thomas's would likely include an autopsy, toxicology tests, physical findings and a chronological history of the case.

If Mr. Thomas did not die immediately after being shocked, as the police have said was the case, then it is less likely that the Taser played a role, Dr. Levy said.

"On a day-to-day basis, medical examiners are called on to give opinions regarding the relative contributions of many different things to death, natural and unnatural things," he said.


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