Posted on Sat, Feb. 04, 2006
Taser called factor in death
CORONER'S FINDING IN 20O5 POLICE CASE IS A FIRST IN SANTA CLARA COUNTY
By Sean Webby
For the first time in Santa Clara County, the coroner's office has listed the use of Tasers by police officers as one of the factors causing a person's death.
The main cause of Jose Angel Rios' death late last year was heart failure during his cocaine-fueled battle against San Jose police officers, according to an autopsy obtained Friday by the Mercury News. The 38-year-old's obesity and heart disease caused by cocaine use were also listed as causes. The manner of death -- accidental, homicide, suicide, etc. -- was ``undetermined.''
Dr. Christopher Happy also concluded a ``contributory cause of death'' was ``Post Tasering and pepper-spraying.''
Two other suspects have died after San Jose police shot them with Tasers. The use of the electric stun gun was not a listed cause in one of those deaths. The other case is still pending an autopsy report.
Rios' autopsy provided fuel for local opponents of Taser use, who have argued San Jose police should carefully constrain or even prohibit the use of the electric stun gun.
``Mr. Rios' situation is very unfortunate,'' said Richard Konda of the Coalition for Justice and Accountability, a local police watchdog group. ``There are just a lot of open questions about Tasers, and we have been afraid people were going to die.''
``I would hope the San Jose Police Department would look at that situation and reconsider its positions on Tasers.''
Gracie Palacios, Rios' sister, also called for a ban.
``No one knows what the effect of these things are,'' Palacios said. ``And the police will never admit to doing something wrong.''
While Police Chief Robert Davis told the Mercury News on Friday that he would remain ``open minded'' to any evidence that showed Tasers as dangerous, Rios' autopsy report ``gave no assistance'' to resolving that issue.
``Consider the alternative,'' Davis said. ``Would we rather take a chance with Taser and avoid the shooting or get rid of the Taser and have the officers rely on a 9mm?''
Davis pointed to a late Friday morning arrest of a mentally ill man with a steak knife who had wandered away from a halfway house and was near a Willow Glen elementary school. The man did not respond to commands to lay down the knife, and an officer subdued him with a Taser shot. The man was brought to the hospital, but was uninjured.
Davis said he was puzzled by Happy's report, which he said seemed to contradict itself by stating that Tasers were a contributing factor in Rios' death and at the same time suggesting that there was no scientific proof that Tasers caused deaths.
Happy was unavailable for comment. But Lt. Chris Forrester of the coroner's office said the chief is ``right about the evidence, but it's Dr. Happy's opinion that the Tasing was a contributory factor.''
San Jose is one of the first major city police departments to equip all of its patrol officers with Tasers. They have been used about 100 times every six months, according to police statistics. Three people have died in the city after being shot with a Taser.
Examiners didn't conclude Brian Patrick O'Neal's death Aug. 8 was influenced by Tasers. O'Neal died from heart failure while high on methamphetamines and marijuana, the autopsy said. The Jan. 27 death of Jorge Trujillo -- who two days before was attacked by unknown assailants with baseball bats before a struggle with police who shot him twice with Tasers -- is still being investigated.
On Nov. 18, Rios was arguing with his wife in a parking lot of a Stokes Avenue apartment complex when police were called. Rios fought police as they tried to take him into custody. He was pepper-sprayed, struck with batons and finally shot twice by Tasers.
He died soon afterward.
Many places in the country do not consider the effects of Tasers as a primary cause of death. Pathologists say there isn't enough scientific evidence.
But this year, Santa Clara County forensic pathologists resolved to use the effect of Tasers as a possible cause on a case-by-case basis.
San Mateo County pathologists have listed Taser use, along with cocaine and a violent struggle with police, as one of the causes of death of 30-year-old Greg Saulsbury of Pacifica on Jan. 2, 2005.