By Paul Rubin New Times did a lot of reporting last year about stun guns, of which Scottsdale-based Taser International is by far the world's largest manufacturer. We studied endless scientific reports, police records and took training classes with the Phoenix cops (for the record, only idiots elect to be Tased at those seminars, and we may be stupid on occasion, but not that stupid).
When we tackled the Taser question, the controversial company was enmeshed in this nation and abroad in an array of lawsuits, unflattering media accounts and generally negative white papers issued by human-rights organizations. But our own research painted a mostly positive picture of the device, both as a law-enforcement tool and as a safety net (though an initially painful one) for dangerous and combative citizens who otherwise might be shot with real bullets and be real dead.
Naturally, though, we couldn't spend months on such a volatile topic without coming upon a local horror story. The May 2005 death-by-Taser of 24-year-old Keith Graff after Phoenix police officers zapped him for 84 seconds (try counting to 84) provided us with a chillingly lethal example of what can happen when cops misuse (some would use a much stronger word) the powerful weapon.
Taser has won most of the civil cases filed against it in Maricopa County and beyond. But one case with a lot riding on it for the firm started earlier this week in Akron, Ohio. Taser is asking the Summit County Medical Examiner to change her earlier rulings that "electrical pulse incapacitation" (i.e. the 50,000-volt charge delivered through two barbed wires released from the gun) contributed to the deaths of three men.
According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the trio had used drugs or had pre-existing heart issues before police used Tasers on them. And the company and the medical examiner are expected to present expert testimony about how and why the guys died.
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For example, an 18-year-old died in May 2005 (a few weeks after Keith Graff's death on a stairwell of a north Phoenix apartment) after an officer in Springfield Township shot him four times with her Taser after he attacked her in a pasture. The ME's office ruled that the stun gun contributed to the young man's death, and that he had been in a drug-induced psychosis from using meth and Ecstasy.
Then there was the August 2006 death inside the Summit County Jail of a 28-year-old man, who was Tased and pepper-sprayed by deputies during a struggle. The coroner in that case ruled that the man had died of asphyxia because of "the combined effects of chemical, mechanical and electrical restraint."
Five deputies were indicted in the death, which is five more than were indicted in Maricopa County in the aftermath of the 1996 death from "positional asphyxia" of inmate Scott Norberg while in custody at Sheriff Joe Arpaio's jail. The evidence in that case suggested that detention officers zapped Norberg with a stun gun before he died.
The county later settled a lawsuit by Norberg's parents for $8.25 million.