Taser Invents Its Own Cause of Death

Remember the good old days before there were television commercials touting a cure for restless legs syndrome, a malady that never before existed?  Meet the Taser version, excited delirium syndrome, coming to a courtroom near you.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, however, does not recognize excited delirium as a condition. Consequently, neither does the American Psychiatric Association. The association referred questions about excited delirium to Dr. Howard Zonana, a psychiatrist at Yale University.

“At the moment, I don’t see a lot of support for it,” Zonana said. “It’s usually an exclusionary diagnosis. If you can’t find anything else, then you say that.”

But if someone dies following being tased, expect excited delirium syndrome to be the cause of death.

Whether excited delirium, by itself, can kill someone is controversial. Taser International says it can. Whenever the manufacturer catches wind of an arrest-related death involving a Taser, the company reaches out to the investigating medical examiner and suggests he or she consider the condition as a possible cause of death.

In the 1990s, when Tasers use spread across police departments nationwide, so did research into the cause of death by Taser.

During that same decade, neurology professor Deborah Mash began researching excited delirium at the University of Miami.

[Taser spokesman Steve] Tuttle has suggested medical examiners contact Mash when conducting an autopsy on someone who died after being shocked by a Taser, for information on excited delirium. In an email to the Vermont State Police regarding Mason’s death, Tuttle referred to Mash as “the lead researcher on this matter.”

While Marsh has served as Taser’s paid expert, she says her research was not funded by Taser. Rather, her claim is that she invented a cause of death that no one before believed existed.

Mash also says excited delirium can kill. She has provided paid expert testimony on the condition in lawsuits against Taser International, but says the manufacturer has never funded her research at the University of Miami’s Brain Endowment Bank.

“Back at the beginning, when I was called in as an expert, people did not believe in the condition of excited delirium,” Mash said in a phone interview this week. “Now they do.”

The problem is that excited delirium syndrome is purportedly a psychiatric condition. One of the curious aspects of mental illness is that it can’t be determined post-mortem. Even among those who accept its existence as a condition, its use as Taser’s go-to cause of death can’t be explained.

[Psychiatrist Terry] Rabinowitz, while recognizing excited delirium as psychiatric condition, questioned its lethality.

“What you’re likely to be dying from is whatever is causing the delirium itself,” Rabinowitz said. “Do people die from depression? No. They die from the consequences of depression.”

He also questioned how a doctor would go about diagnosing someone with excited delirium, postmortem, in an arrest-related death involving a Taser.

“I don’t have those skills,” he said.

Marsh, who defends her disease, argues that it’s not her fault that it isn’t susceptible to proof by scientific method.

Asked whether the act of subduing someone experiencing excited delirium might contribute to his or her death, Mash responded: “You can’t do the experiment. … You can’t put people into states of excited delirium.”

So how does excited delirium, on its own, kill?

“The trigger is in the brain,” Mash said: A chemical defect causes the nervous system to crash.

“That’s what kills,” she said. “These feedback loops that regulate and normalize the brain and the heart fail. … The heart just shuts down.”

Nor can you induce anyone to die as a result of being tased in order to show it’s real, because that would result in the death. Any volunteers for the experiment?  So rhetoric substitutes for science, nothing new to the courtroom, and bingo, a new cause of death is born and explains why it’s not Taser’s fault.

The rationale tends to be based on police accounts of their victims being in an agitated state prior to the tasing, which suffers from the fact that it relies on the shooter’s assessment of events and an exculpatory bias.  The very justification for using the Taser in the first place serves to simultaneously explain away the connection between tasing and death.

Ironically, even if it’s true, a very dubious assertion given its birth alongside the Taser industry and lack of medical evidence for its existence, it doesn’t alter the fact that Tasers trigger death in agitated people.  After all, there is no shortage of people being tased who aren’t agitated, and the whole less-than-lethal notion of using a Taser as the weapon of first resort so an officer doesn’t have to spend too much time on the call or risk getting his uniform soiled flies out the window when the likelihood of death as a result increases.

But don’t expect Taser to shoulder the blame for dead people at the end of its prongs.  If it can be chalked up to excited delirium syndrome, then the victim has no one to blame but himself.  And isn’t that really the core explanation of all harm suffered at the hands of the police?

H/T FritzMuffKnuckle

12 comments on “Taser Invents Its Own Cause of Death

  1. Bob

    It’s simply a waste of time to point out that “excited delirium” is just physiologicalish copspeak for “electrocution.” After all, “glassy eyes” must mean we’re a nation full of alcoholics with probable cause already evidenced on all our faces.

  2. Restraint

    Excited delirium is used by stupid, violent cops to hide restraint asphyxia: the extreme agitation one experiences due to air hunger while cops are sitting on the chest wall. It has nothing to do with the Taser but once tasering starts, the chest wall doesn’t move and more suffocation ensues.

  3. Nigel Declan

    Reminds me of all those unfortunate-yet-clearly-guilty suspects that die prior to their day in court due to their completely undiagnosable and unpredictable allergy to getting shot by police bullets. It’s a downright epidemic and the medical community should be ashamed that it dropped the ball, leaving it to some mere police officers to uncover this tragic affliction. For shame!

  4. Marc

    In my former life, I dealt three of these situations in the late 2000’s. My experience was that there was some sort physical exertion by the unfortunate decedent prior to being tasered. I am not sure if restraint asphyxia would have occurred in these cases, though it has a similar sequence of events (explanation by the cops) in the cases I have seen, but I likely would not have known if the decedent was restrained because I didn’t see them until after they would have been out of any restraints. But the interplay of the adrenalin rush and the electrical current from the taser seem to form a fatal combination. The presence of certain types of drugs – methamphetamine and cocaine specifically – seem to be associated with these cases, too. Plus they tend to be overweight males. All of it seems to lead me to the conclusion that it is a combination of these factors that lead to a cardiac event of some sort, not a neuropsychiatric event, which is what the psychiatrist seems to be pushing with “excited delirium.”

    The real problem here is that there is really nothing that can be called “excited delirium” outside of the cases related to a taser episodes. If the psychiatrist can point to another cause of the delirium other than the taser, then I might be willing to believe that “excited delirium” is a legitimate medical diagnosis.

  5. John Neff

    The human system of nerves is a very complex network that operates with low voltages and currents. Shock therapy is still used for certain types of mental illness (but under controlled conditions) and I believe that once and awhile a patient will die during treatment.

    A taser is not used under controlled conditions and nobody present knows what to do if something goes wrong. I would expect a much larger death rate from the use of tasers than for shock treatment.

  6. John Neff

    Shock therapy deaths are rare and most are caused by the anesthesia. The medial literature on taser deaths is fairly extensive and it started in 1989. Someone knew that tasers caused death over twenty years ago I guess that means some folks are slow learners.

  7. BNT

    I think Marc’s got the right of it. Even if “excited delirium” is a legitimate condition, it seems only to be fatal in the presence of Tasers. Unlesss Mash’s research claims that people are also dropping dead of “excited delirium” in the absence of an electric shock, the Taser is still the cause of death.

    If anything, the “excited delirium” hypothesis suggests that the cops should know that this crazily excited person has a better-than-average chance of dying when Tased.

  8. Steve Tuttle

    We invited excited delirium? Are you serious?

    Your failure to mention the American College of Physicians and the National Association of Medical Examiners who recognize Excited Delirium is a serious error of omission. These are two of the top tier medical groups that have put out position papers on this very issue.

    Maybe that’s worth repeating: ER docs and Medical Examiners acknowledge excited delirium.

    Perhaps you can do more research perhaps using PubMed so you can be more versed in Excited Delirium and quit inaccurately reporting the history of this syndrome.

    The term excited delirium (ED) was first used in 1849 to describe psychiatric patients who developed onset of continuous agitation and mania, in the presence of fever, and then suddenly collapsed and died. Fatal ED was first described in 7 cocaine users between April 1983 and May 1984 [1]. (Note we were founded in 1993 – a decade before our company was founded) Since that time, more than 130 cases of fatal, cocaine-associated ED have been reported in the medical and forensic literature…

    We cite what the medical examiners have issued in statements and autopsies.

    Amazingly most deaths are from acute overdoses but you probably aren’t interested in the truth.

  9. SHG

    Frothy, yet unpersuasive. So what if it didn’t make the DSM-IV or neither the APA nor the WHO recognizes it? In 2009, the  American College of Emergency Physicians, charged with deciding whether Excited Delirium existed at all, wrote:

    It is the consensus of the Task Force that ExDS is a unique syndrome which may be identified by the presence of a distinctive group of clinical and behavioral characteristics that can be recognized in the pre-mortem state. ExDS, while potentially fatal, may be amenable to early therapeutic intervention in some cases.

    I notice you didn’t mention them, since they conclude that if it exists, it can only be recognized in pre-mortem state. That leaves your argument kinda dead in the water.  If it makes you happy, let say you resurrected it rather than invented it. Fair enough? It gives it a sort of religious feel.

    But at least you have the balls to use your name, given that Taser  sent a shill to do its bidding last time, so I give you credit for standing behind what you write.

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