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?