Death by Electrocutioner

In a worst-case scenario for stun guns, a Phoenix cop kills a suspect with an 84-second tasing

Listing the cause of Keith Graff's death as excited delirium from meth intoxication seemed like a stretch to Phoenix attorneys Dave Derickson and John Foreman. Both are retired Maricopa County Superior Court judges who are representing Terry Graff in his lawsuit against the Phoenix Police Department and Taser International.

They note that Officer Anderson described Graff's behavior as "nonchalant" just before the suspect was making a calculated attempt to avoid being jailed by high-tailing it out the patio door. Even under the highly charged circumstances, Graff showed no particularly bizarre and aggressive behavior, paranoia, violence toward others, or unexpected physical strength.

Graff's roommate, Stephanie Slaven, told investigators she heard Graff moaning as he was getting shocked by the Taser, which couldn't count as "shouting" under the definition of excited delirium.

Keith Graff died on May 5, 2005.
courtesy of Terry Graff
Keith Graff died on May 5, 2005.

The "methamphetamine intoxication" part of Mosley's conclusion also raises questions. Although any amount of the drug is potentially hazardous to health, Graff had very little meth in his blood when he died, especially for someone who apparently tweaked on a regular basis.

Overnight, the fatal, 84-second shocking of Keith Graff became the main topic of head-scratching conversation inside the Phoenix Police Department.

Lieutenant Dave Kelly recalls that a tactical training sergeant came to speak with him as soon as he heard the number 84 in reference to the length of the Tasing.

At that point, Phoenix police policy didn't address how long officers could Tase a subject.

"The first thing I did, I mean really promptly, was to bring this issue up to command staff," Kelly says. "Then I called Taser and asked, 'Is there any way you can make our units shut off after five seconds before we re-deploy? They said there wasn't."

Before Keith Graff's death, the notion of long and repeated shocks as a potential danger hadn't been mentioned in Taser International's training manuals. But the urgency with which Phoenix police were addressing the issue resonated with the Scottsdale-based firm.

On May 9, 2005, less than week after Keith Graff's death, Phoenix Chief of Police Jack Harris sent a message to each of the city's precincts titled "X26 Extended Duration Employment."

Harris said the department had spoken to Taser International and stated: "All officers carrying Tasers should be aware that Taser applications directly across the chest may cause sufficient muscle contractions to impair normal breathing patterns."

The chief said that wasn't a big concern for a typical five-second Taser cycle, but "prolonged applications should be avoided, where practical."

Harris reminded patrol officers that the primary body target areas for the Taser are the back and side, though "the department acknowledges that this is not always the viable target. For this reason, when deploying the Taser, officers should use a maximum of a five-second burst."

The message was in direct response to the fatal, 84-second Tasing of Keith Graff.

Then, in a June 28, 2005, training bulletin, Taser International noted for the first time that "repeated, prolonged and/or continuous exposures to the Taser may impair breathing and respiration, particularly when the probes are placed across the chest or diaphragm."

That's precisely what had happened to Graff.

On July 20, 2005, Chief Harris reiterated his department's new position on the use of the Taser: "Effective immediately, when deploying the X26 Taser, officers will administer a five-second cycle, then assess the effectiveness of the deployment. Cycles may be repeated, if necessary, assessing between cycles."

Just two weeks after Keith Graff's death, Carla Williams' sergeant wrote in her annual job evaluation, "You are able to bear the injustices a patrol officer is subjected to on the street without wanting to get even."

That was unintentionally ironic, as the evidence suggests getting even with a guy who had shoved his girlfriend was exactly what Chuck Anderson was doing for much of the 84 fatal seconds.

Later, the Phoenix Police Department cleared officers Anderson and Williams of any wrongdoing in the Graff killing. But even before then, the pair had been reassigned to new duties as school resource officers — Williams at an elementary school and Anderson at a high school.

Though the transfers were not demotions, they did have the effect of taking the officers off the streets of Phoenix. Their personnel evaluations since their transfers have been positive.

Terry Graff remains embittered after his son's death but says he resolved soon afterward to try not to hate all cops. Not long after Dave Uribe was murdered a week after Keith died, Graff says he donated a few bucks to a fund established in the late officer's name.

"I'm not a hateful person, and neither was my son," Terry Graff says. "I know in my heart that those officers murdered my son, but it wasn't the entire police department. I still think they should have prosecuted Officer Anderson on criminal charges. For the Phoenix Police Department not to have even given [Anderson and Williams] a slap on the wrist, well, that's hard to take."

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