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Published: 4/13/2005

Taser-linked death ruled a homicide

BY CHRISTINA HALL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Lucas County coroner James Patrick. Lucas County coroner James Patrick.
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Turner Turner
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The Lucas County coroner ruled yesterday that multiple Taser shocks contributed to the January death of Jeffrey Turner and ruled his death a homicide.

The 41-year-old central Toledoan died "primarily as a result of pre-existing heart disease, which was most likely due to high blood pressure [hypertension]," Dr. James Patrick, the coroner, said. "However, since his death closely coincided with the application of multiple Taser shocks, this also contributed to his death."

Since the use of force contributed to his death, the manner of death was ruled a homicide.

County Prosecutor Julia Bates said her office will conduct a review of the incident before deciding whether to take any action.

Turner, a Scott High graduate who was 6-foot, 3-inches and 220 pounds, was shocked five times with a Taser stun gun by Toledo police during his arrest Jan. 31 outside the Toledo Museum of Art. He was later shocked four more times with a different model Taser gun by county jail officials. All nine hits from the guns, which discharge a five-second jolt of 50,000 volts of electricity each, occurred within a three-hour period.

City police approached Turner outside the art museum after security there reported a suspicious man had been loitering outside the closed museum for more than 40 minutes. Arresting officers said they used a Taser to subdue Turner after he refused to identify himself or cooperate with questions and then fought being taken into custody.

After he was carried into the county jail, Turner was booked and ate a boxed lunch before becoming agitated again in his cell. He refused attempts to restrain him and corrections officers then shocked him with a Taser.

A nurse dispatched to Turner's cell as a matter of procedure after the stun gun's use discovered he was unresponsive. He died a short time later at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center.

No criminal or administrative charges were filed against the jail officials. City police officers also faced no criminal charges, but four police officers and a sergeant were administratively charged for improperly handcuffing Turner at the time of his arrest. Hearings on the charges were set for last month but were continued. No new dates have been set.

Shawn Turner said yesterday he was pleased with the coroner's ruling in his brother's death. The central city resident and TARTA bus driver said he wants those involved, particularly those at the sheriff's office, fired.

"If I did my job and I killed someone, do you think they'd keep me? No, they wouldn't keep me," he said.

Even though he and his family have waited more than two months for the coroner's ruling on his brother's death, Shawn Turner added: "This is not over. This is only the beginning."

While calling Turner's death "unfortunate," Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser International, said the firm continues to believe in the life-saving value of its devices.

"We are unaware of any scientific data that suggests the use, or multiple uses of a Taser device would result in this regrettable outcome," he said yesterday in a prepared statement.

A study released April 1 by Amnesty International found more than 103 Taser-related deaths in the United States and Canada between June, 2001, and March, 2005. The Securities and Exchange Commission recently opened an informal inquiry into Taser International's statements about the safety of their devices.

Although his office considered the potential impact of the initial use of Taser shocks by city police, Dr. Patrick said during a press conference that Turner appeared to be doing well and in no distress afterward.

"It is hard to argue there was a direct relationship with that and his death," the coroner said.

Dr. Patrick said it was the altercation later at the jail, including the shocks, that contributed to the death.

"We have indications of pre-existing heart disease. He is stressed with multiple factors. We think that stress contributed to his death," Dr. Patrick said.

He said the autopsy showed Turner's heart was heavy and had thick muscle wall, and that he had "significant cardiac enlargement."

Dr. Bruce Wilkoff, a cardiologist and director of cardiac pacing at the Cleveland Clinic, said that while one can never be certain in cases like this, "you have to say with the proximity and timing it's very suspicious ... It sounds like the Taser is likely to have caused it."

Dr. Patrick said Turner's toxicology tests were positive for recent marijuana use, but added that the level of the drug in Turner's body was not considered a contributing factor in his death. He also said Turner had experienced "some exposure to the mental health system."

A jail intake report indicates Turner told a jail counselor he suffered from paranoid-schizophrenia, for which he was taking medication. A Toledo Municipal Court record indicates that he was taking medication for a chemical imbalance, but records indicate he told authorities he had no drug or alcohol problems.

"We want to review [the coroner's press release] and the coroner's report, which we understand is being sent to the Lucas County prosecutor's office for review," said Rick Keller, jail corrections administrator, serving as spokesman for Sheriff James Telb.

"Until [the prosecutor] has a chance to review and us to further review, we don't think it's appropriate for us to comment," he said.

After Turner's death, the sheriff suspended the use of Tasers and enacted a policy that requires any suspect shocked by a stun gun to pass a medical examination at a hospital before they can be booked into the county jail.

Toledo police Chief Mike Navarre said in a statement yesterday that his department will continue to use Tasers, will review and analyze studies detailing the effects of the devices, and "will take any appropriate further action based upon those findings."

Last month, Chief Navarre tightened the department's policy on when officers can use Tasers and how many times a person can be shocked with the device.

He said in his statement yesterday that many instruments not normally considered lethal, such as physical force, pepper spray, batons, and Tasers, can inadvertently result in the death of an individual.

"Police work can take rough, unexpected, and sometimes violent turns very quickly for officers. It is important to supply them with the best tools available to ensure their safety, as well as the safety of the general public in these situations," he said.

Toledo Mayor Jack Ford said he thinks there is a role for Tasers.

"I still believe the old way of takedowns and chokeholds still result in deaths and put our officers at risk," he said.

Gregg Harris, president of the Toledo Police Patrolman's Association, said he believes after Turner's death there is some apprehension among officers about using Tasers. But he said he remains in favor of the devices, citing fewer fights with suspects and fewer injuries to officers.

"People with hypertension, all they have to do is run away and they can collapse," Mr. Harris said. "Stress - we need to focus on that."

David Taylor III, a Toledo lawyer and former president of the NAACP's Toledo branch, sent a letter to the Toledo FBI office yesterday demanding an immediate investigation by the U.S. Justice Department into what he called a violation of Turner's civil rights.

"We feel that the excessive use of the Taser gun [9 hits] was the direct and proximate cause of his death, thereby violating his civil rights," states the letter, which was copied to the NAACP's national office and others.

Mr. Taylor, who previously sent letters to local and national officials requesting a moratorium on the use of the devices, said in a phone interview that he was not acting on behalf of the NAACP or the family.

Staff writer Luke Shockman contributed to this report.

Contact Christina Hall at

chall@theblade.com

or 419-724-6007.



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