Taser: The "Less Lethal" Weapon with a Fatal Attraction to Prisoners
by John E. Dannenberg
Extensive medical evidence strongly supports the Taser devices will not cause lasting aftereffects or fatality.
Taser International literature
Tasers, fifty-thousand volt electronic stun guns manufactured by Arizona-based Taser International, are killing and injuring ever more prisoners. Classified in the oxymoronic category of less lethal weapons (see, e.g., California Penal Code § 12600 et seq.), Tasers have killed unlucky recipients of the devices painful shocks just as dead as more lethal weapons.
In many cases, death has resulted when the Taser exacerbates a victims underlying medical weakness such as a heart condition, or when it is used on a person who is under the influence of drugs or in a state of excited delirium. In other incidents, Taser use is in addition to pepper spray, restraint chairs and physical abuse which results in death by positional asphyxia. While the interrelated causes of such Taser-related deaths are being debated in myriad lawsuits brought by Taser victims families [and even by one police department see PLN, March, 2006, p. 18], prisoners continue to be electrically injured and killed in jails across the United States.
PLN originally addressed this issue in a comprehensive article entitled Shocked and Stunned in our June 2005 issue. As indicated below, Taser-related deaths and abuse remain a disturbing, on-going problem that has yet to be resolved. Also note that Tasers have been implicated in numerous deaths caused by police or other law enforcement agencies during arrests where the victims did not die in jail, which are not detailed here.
On December 23, 2004, Sacramento Sheriffs deputies gave an unseasonable present to Marjorie Pino they Tasered her 31-year-old son Ronnie to death, and he died in the Sacramento County Jail on Christmas Eve. I told them he had a bad heart, Marjorie told reporters, referring to the Vega Nerve Stimulator implanted in Ronnies chest to control grand mal seizures (which resulted from abnormal electrical discharges in his brain). He took medications six times a day for anti-psychotic, heart and epilepsy conditions. Ronnie died 17 hours after being Tasered.
Suffering from frequent hallucinations that he was talking with Governor Schwarzenegger, Ronnie had been taken earlier that day to a psychiatric hospital, where he broke a glass door and was confronted by the police. He was Tasered twice, cuffed, and hauled to jail. The next morning a jail doctor phoned Marjorie to inquire what medications Ronnie was on, adding, they were having problems with him. She came to the jail with a bail bond check to take Ronnie home, only to learn that he had died. The cause of death was ruled Sudden Unexpected Death Syndrome, and although Taser injuries were noted in the autopsy report, Taser use was not cited as a factor in Ronnies death.
Davis Cross, 44, died of asphyxiation on September 17, 2005 at the Santa Cruz County Jail. He had been incarcerated on a domestic violence charge, and began yelling and hitting his head against the cell door. He was Tasered after he refused to stop, and then stopped breathing after he was restrained. County Forensic Pathologist Dr. Richard Mason later reported good news, finding the Taser was not the cause of death. Mason found amphetamines in Crosss body and determined that the deputies who restrained him had simply choked him to death. However, the conflation of Tasering and being under the influence of drugs is known to be particularly lethal.
On October 20, 2005, 33-year-old Jose Maravilla Perez was Tasered multiple times by police after he violated a restraining order, tried to flee and fought with officers. He was placed in restraints and taken to the San Leandro jail, where he continued to fight and was Tasered again. He stopped breathing and became unresponsive, and died the same day.
Cedric Davis, 26, a prisoner at the Merced County jail, was involved in a fight with five guards on March 11, 2006. He was shot several times with a Taser and one guard stated he punched Davis twice in the head. Previously, Davis had been handcuffed behind his back for almost a day and a half in a padded cell, as he was behaving erratically. Guards pepper sprayed him when they tried to put him in a restraint chair, which was also when he was Tasered. After being placed in the chair David stopped breathing; he was transported to a local hospital where he was revived, but died about a week later. According to a medic who transported Davis, he had suffered a heart attack. This was an unfortunate situation, but it was not our doing, stated Sheriff Mark Pazin. We did everything right by the numbers.
And on May 15, 2006, Los Angeles County agreed to pay $75,000 to the family of Jerry Moreno to settle two federal lawsuits filed after Moreno died at the Pitchess Detention Center in January 2005. Moreno, 33, was declared brain dead three days after he attacked other prisoners at the jail and was subdued by an emergency response team that used tear gas and a Taser. He was reportedly under the influence of drugs at the time, and died of a heart attack precipitated by impaired breathing.
Taser shocks and a restraint chair were factors in the death of Raul M. Gallegos-Reyes, who died at Arapahoe Countys main jail on August 17, 2006. Gallegos-Reyes was reportedly agitated, began screaming in his cell early in the morning, and fought with and bit two deputies, whose names were withheld by the sheriffs office. He was Tasered once, then placed in a restraint chair and checked by medical staff. He lost consciousness and died before he could be taken to a hospital. Questioned whether Taser use had contributed to Gallegos-Reyes' death, Sheriff Grayson Robinson stated, "That's still part of the investigation thats being conducted. Across the country, wherever a Taser has been deployed, as far as I know, the Taser has not been the cause of death. Its been the result of something else."
Byron Black, 39, died on November 27, 2004 after deputies both pepper-sprayed and Tasered him in his cell at the Lee County jail. Black, an insurance salesman, had been arrested for setting his own van on fire. Lee County Associate Medical Examiner Barbara Wolf determined that the struggle and the Taser shock contributed to Black's death from cardiac arrhythmia, a condition Black had developed from alcohol withdrawal and seizures. The January 2006 autopsy report also revealed that all drug tests were negative. Sheriffs Department Sgt. Larry King declined to comment pending possible litigation.
Truck driver Robert Boggan had been in the Escambia County jail for 11 days in August 2005, detained for aggravated assault and assault with a deadly weapon which occurred at a Dollar Tree store during a mental episode. County officials vigorously denied that the August 29 death of the 65-year-old prisoner was due to his being Tasered. They may have a latent defense: Boggan was treated by personnel from notorious medical care contractor Prison Health Services (PHS).
In a lawsuit filed by his family in October 2005, it was claimed that guards maliciously shocked Boggan as punishment for not following orders. Jail Director Dennis Williams said Boggan was acting irrationally, and stated no Taser shock was administered the day of his death. The suit alleges quite a different story. After guards had stripped Boggan naked and placed him in a shower cell, each of the four times the Tasers darts were shot into Mr. Boggans wet chest and he was shocked with 50,000 volts, the entire shower cell walls flashed as if lightning were striking in that small space. Mr. Boggan screamed for his life on each occasion. The complaint goes on to say that Boggan collapsed, was put in a restraining chair and dragged back to his cell, where he remained without medical attention until found dead seven hours later.
Things heated up on October 25, 2005, when 200 citizens marched past the jail in a protest, while sympathetic prisoners pounded on windows and waved toilet paper. Estelle Boggan, Roberts widow, described him as a hardworking, church-going man who suffered from schizophrenia. His son Donnell said, we will not stop until we get justice.
On November 30, the State's Attorney Office announced it was seeking a coroners inquest to determine if criminal charges should be filed. At the inquest, Dr. Andrea Minyard testified that being in jail for 11 days caused him to die. She added that Boggan died from heart disease and paranoid schizophrenia, with being placed in a restraint chair and injected with the tranquilizer Haloperidol being contributing factors. The 48 hours Boggan spent in the restraint chair (14 of them in one stint) exacerbated his moderate heart disease, and even trace amounts of Haloperidol can cause cardiac problems, she stated. Dr. Joseph Montastero, the jails PHS medical director, testified that Boggan was given two injections of a drug cocktail containing 10 mg. of Haloperidol.
Testifying for the defendants, Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent Christopher Rigoni stated that the last two times Boggan had been Tasered were four days and three days before he died. The Medical Examiner eventually concluded that the Taser use was not directly linked to Boggans death. In the history of Escambia County, nine coroner's inquests have been conducted since 1998; none has resulted in criminal charges.
Another Escambia County jail prisoner, Jerry Preyer, 45, who suffered from mental illness, died on June 13, 2006 after being Tasered. Preyer, who became aggressive, was initially strapped into a restraint chair. He was released after he calmed down, but then fought with jail guards and was shocked twice with a Taser. The Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement is investigating the incident.
Following Preyers death, in July 2006 Sheriff Ron McNesby restricted the use of Tasers at the jail and asked the county commission for $625,000 to equip four cells with rubber padding to hold mentally ill prisoners. He refused to get rid of Tasers entirely, however, saying it would be unpopular with the jail guards. Further, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed a bill into law on June 27, 2006 that requires mandatory training for law enforcement officers who use Tasers, and limits the use of Tasers to situations where suspects or prisoners are physically threatening or attempting to escape.
On September 4, 2006, spurred by the deaths of Boggan and Preyer, over 125 people protested in downtown Pensacola, calling for the removal of Tasers from the jail. Participants in the demonstration, which was organized by Movement for Change, chanted Tasers kill, stop the abuse as they marched.
Graphic videotapes of the May 25, 2004 death of prisoner Frederick Williams in the Gwinnett County Jail shocked viewers who watched him lose consciousness after being Tasered five times in 43 seconds. In April 2005 the grand jury, relying solely upon an 11-month police investigation, decided not to investigate the incident. The grand jury was criticized because it declined to view the damning tape, although they were told about it. And what they missed was Williams, shackled and cuffed, pleading for his life before being carried into the jail by 11 deputies, who then Tasered the bucking prisoner in the chest while he was in a restraint chair located in a holding cell. Williams lost consciousness after five minutes, and was then tended to by PHS contract personnel. He died two days later in a Gwinnett hospital.
Williams, 31, a Liberian native, had been arrested on domestic violence charges at his Lawrenceville home after his wife, Yanga, called 911 and said he had failed to take his epilepsy medication and had become violent and irrational. District Attorney Danny Porter had asked the grand jury to consider the case, but limited the question to the county's use of the controversial stun guns.
The jails in-chair Tasering policy was tested by two Gwinnett police officers. They reenacted Williams situation by letting themselves be shocked (but only twice) while strapped in. As expected, they reacted in exactly the same manner as Williams had, arching their backs and trying to push out of the restraint chair, not from disobedience but due to the pain of the electric shocks. The pain was so intense that I would have done anything to get away from it, said Gwinnett Police Corporal Damon Cavender. It caused me to scream involuntarily. Lt. William Walsh, the second stun gun guinea pig, reported identical reactions.
This was not surprising, because Sgt. Michael Mustachio, who Tasered Williams, selected the drive stun mode of the Taser, applying it directly to Williams chest instead of shooting from a distance. Using the weapon in this way causes intense pain but does not incapacitate a person, according to Taser International. Mustachios sadism was again revealed when he was fired in February 2005 for killing a neighbors dog because its barking disturbed him, and then trying to conceal the crime. Sheriff Butch Conway, who viewed the video of Williams being Tasered, said his deputies did nothing wrong. He did, however, change department policy nine months later to forbid the direct application of the Taser (drive stun mode) to a prisoner who is partially controlled in the restraint chair or otherwise immobilized, or when sufficient deputies are present.
Melvin Johnson, an attorney representing Williams' wife and four children, argued there was no reason to Taser him after he was shackled in the restraint chair. While one deputy had his arm around Williams neck and chin and others held his shackled and cuffed arms and legs, Sergeant Mustachio bravely pressed the Taser into Williams midsection, asking after each lurching reaction, Do you want another one? The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed the video to two former prosecutors and a defense attorney, all of whom said the grand jury should have been allowed to decide if a crime had been committed by deputies. In September 2005, the U.S. Attorneys office announced there was insufficient evidence to pursue federal charges against the Gwinnett deputies involved in Williams death.
Johnson filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Williams family on December 7, 2005. They gained public support when 200 members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference marched in memory of Williams to the Gwinnett Justice Center in Lawrenceville, calling for an economic boycott of the county to protest those who dont respect human life by Tasering them to death in jail. On January 20, 2006, Gwinnett county attorneys responded by assigning the blame to Taser International, accusing the company of providing false training documents, using biased safety studies, and failing to warn users that repeated use of the stun guns could be lethal. Taser International responded that they were confident their product had nothing to do with Williams death.
Gwinnett County's legal problems multiplied in September 2005, when attorney Brian Spears, representing the family of deceased prisoner Ray Charles Austin, sued Sheriff Conway and Prison Health Services, the jails contract medical care provider, for Austin's September 23, 2003 jailhouse Taser death. The suit alleges that Austin, 24, would not have died if deputies and a PHS nurse had not forced him to take medication, shocked him eight times in a 13 minute period, and choked him. Austin, a schizophrenic, had been arrested for a probation violation. While in jail he bit a deputy; he was injected with psychotropic drugs and restrained in a chair, where he died shortly thereafter. Although the autopsy determined that Austin died of a heart attack, it did not reveal what caused the heart attack. The forced medication was contrary to doctors orders in Austins medical file. Sadly, it was Austin's resistance to the forced medication that started the altercation which resulted in his death.
In Sept. 2005, Gwinnett's chief medical examiner, Dr. Steven Dunton, reported that Taser shocks may have contributed to both Austin's and William's deaths, though he ruled their deaths were due to undetermined causes. Not all of Gwinnett's jail fatalities have involved Tasers, however. In the same four-month period that the two Taser-related deaths occurred, Harriett Washington, 43, died in her cell on October 17, 2005 while cellmates begged PHS employees to provide her with medical care, and Jon Eskew, 49, killed himself on December 1, 2005 by slashing his wrists with a metal jail key. The Gwinnett facility, designed for 1,200 prisoners, housed 1,736 at the time some triple-celled with 476 more farmed out to other Georgia jails. Seventy-seven guard positions were vacant at the facility.
A 13-year veteran deputy sheriff of Champaign County was arrested and suspended with pay on November 15, 2005 for aggravated battery after he used a Taser device on [31-year-old prisoner Ray Hsieh] outside the course of his official duties. Sgt. William Alan Myers was also charged with obstruction of justice for lying in an attempt to cover up his crime. He was booked into the neighboring Piatt County Jail to avoid being housed with prisoners he had been guarding in the Champaign County Jail, and was released hours later on a $1,000 cash bond.
On August 25, 2006, prosecutors filed a third charge against Myers, a felony charge of disorderly conduct, for having submitted a report falsely claiming that Hsieh had spit on two other guards. Myers is due in court on all three charges on Oct. 3, 2006. Hsieh received a confidential settlement from the county as a result of the Tasering incident, in an amount under $10,000.
Former Monroe County jailer David Shaw is facing two felony charges of battery after using a Taser to shock a prisoner, who later died, in November 2003. Shaw repeatedly used the Taser on 47-year-old James Borden while Borden was being booked into the jail on a probation violation. He was handcuffed at the time. According to an autopsy, Borden had a heart disorder and an enlarged heart, and both drug intoxication and the Taser shock contributed to his death. Shaw is scheduled to go to trial on October 16, 2006; a civil lawsuit filed by Bordens family resulted in a $500,000 settlement.
On September 14, 2006, former Powell County deputy Michael Brown pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of assault and official misconduct for Tasering a prisoner without cause. In accepting the plea bargain, Brown avoided a more serious felony charge. He was arrested following a March 28, 2006 alternation with jail prisoner Reuben Heath, who was being held for resisting arrest. Brown was the arresting officer. While handcuffed in a holding cell and lying on a bunk, Heath was Tasered by Brown through the cell doors food slot, reportedly because he refused to comply with Browns orders. Brown, who was running for Sheriff at the time of the gratuitous Tasering, was sentenced to two years probation and forced to surrender his police certification.
Non-English-speaking Honduran citizen Carlos Claros-Castro, 28, was arrested on January 6, 2006 for drunk driving, speeding, not reporting an accident and not having a license. Less than a day later he was dead in the Davidson County Jail after an altercation with two guards. Apparently Claros-Castro failed to understand a command by guards, which led to a confrontation. Alone in a secure cell, he was Tasered three or four times, pepper sprayed, placed in a restraint chair and beaten with an ASP baton, after which he died. Sheriff David Grices original report stated that Claros-Castro was out of control. An attorney provided by the Honduran Consul said calling this an altercation was putting it lightly, and asserted that an injustice has certainly been done.
The district attorney's office agreed, and second-degree murder charges were filed against jailers Brandon Huie and Ronald Parker. Two autopsies concluded that Claros-Castros death was a homicide, citing bruises, bleeding in his neck and brain, wounds from Taser shocks and signs of asphyxiation. Huie pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter; he received a 16-20 month sentence on June 30, 2006. Parker decided to take the case to a jury trial in August 2006, where he was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and received 13-16 months in prison. Claros-Castro's family is preparing to file a civil lawsuit against the county.
While the proverbial feline may survive nine fatal events, nine 5-second 50,000 volt jolts by Tasers proved deadly to 41-year-old Jeffrey Turner after he was arrested on January 31, 2005 in Toledo.
According to his family's attorney, Turner was holding his Bible and praying silently outside the closed Toledo Museum of Art when police, after challenging him for refusing to identify himself, Tasered him five times. Becoming combative, Turner was carried to the Lucas County jail by deputies, where guards Tasered him four more times. A nurse sent to his cell to check on him found him dead.
The coroner reported evidence of pre-existing cardiac disease, including an enlarged heart. Turner was also on schizophrenia medication. The coroner ruled on April 13, 2005 that the repeated Tasering contributed to the death, making it a homicide.
Steve Tuttle, Taser Internationals vice-president of communications, reiterated his company's belief that Tasers save lives, adding, we are unaware of any scientific data that suggests the use, or multiple uses of a Taser device would result in this regrettable outcome. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) impliedly disagreed in early 2005 the SEC opened an informal inquiry into Taser Internationals statements concerning the safety of their devices, though the agency eventually concluded that no enforcement action should be taken. Dr. Bruce Wilkoff, a cardiologist at the famed Cleveland Clinic, opined that because of the timing proximity, it sounds like the Taser is likely to have caused [Turner's death].
Toledo Police Chief Mike Navarre apparently was similarly concerned. After Turner's death, Navarre suspended the use of Tasers and enacted a proactive policy requiring any suspect shocked by a stun gun to first pass a medical examination at a hospital before being booked into the county jail.
The matter may well be resolved in Lucas County Common Pleas Court, where Turner's mother, Betty, filed a lawsuit on January 30, 2006 against the nine Toledo police officers and three Sheriff's deputies involved. On February 14, 2006, county commissioners approved $75,000 to hire three law firms to defend against the suit. Separately, the NAACP has asked the FBI to investigate possible civil rights violations.
Maurice Cunningham died in the Lancaster County Jail on July 23, 2005 after a Sheriffs deputy Tasered him for an uninterrupted 2 minutes, 49 seconds before he collapsed during a fight with four guards, according to the autopsy report. The minutes-long electrocution came after Cunningham was shocked five other times, ranging in length from five to nine seconds each, the report said. Taser Internationals X-26 Taser records the duration of each shock. While normally the weapon activates automatically for 5 seconds, the X-26 can be continually energized by holding down the trigger. In this case, the Taser's darts connected between Cunninghams left thigh and left arm, which completed a circuit that disrupted the electrical system controlling his heart. His heart had been damaged at the cellular level by the shocks; Coroner Mike Morris ruled that the Taser caused fatal cardiac arrhythmia of the 29-year-old prisoner.
Pathologists at the Medical University of South Carolina also noted that Cunningham, who had a history of schizophrenia, had no medications detectable in his blood at the time, although Abilify and Risperdal had been prescribed. The night before the attack, Cunningham had reported seeing snakes in his cell. Guards stated they subdued Cunningham after he had stabbed two guards in the eyes with pencils and lunged at two others, according to the Sheriffs office and two prisoner witnesses. Cunningham was in jail awaiting trial for assault and battery with intent to kill.
Amnesty International spokesman Ed Jackson stated he had never heard of such a long Taser shock, recalling the previous record was 50 seconds in a Chicago incident. They train officers to shock them until they comply.... There needs to be serious examination of training programs to make sure they're consistent with what we now know about Tasers, he said. In fact, in June 2005, Taser International issued a bulletin warning police to avoid uninterrupted and multiple shocks, admitting that certain people could suffer from potentially fatal health risks as a result of over-exertion or impaired breathing. The Charlotte chapter of the Harlem-based National Action Network called for an end to the use of Tasers.
Chris McCargo is fortunate that he didn't die after a deputy at the Bradley County jail shocked him in the neck with an M26 Taser. He did, however, remain in a coma for months. Jailers attempted to put McCargo, who was charged with public drunkenness, in a restraint chair. According to Alonzo Howard, a prisoner who witnessed the incident, "That's when [jail] Lieutenant Michael Cooper pulled a Taser out and stuck it to the right side of his neck. Just Tased him right there, you know." Hours later McCargo had a seizure and lapsed into a coma. The sheriff said cameras at the jail had failed to record several hours during the time that McCargo was restrained and shocked, and refused to comment further. The FBI is assisting with an investigation into the incident.
Other former prisoners have since come forward, stating they were subjected to inappropriate Taserings by jail guards. Brian Woodby said he was shocked 4 to 6 times on the lower stomach and genitals while strapped to a gurney by Lt. Michael Cooper, the same guard who used a Taser on McCargo. Woodby had been a passenger in a car in which the driver was arrested for DUI, and had not been charged with any crime. Jason Adams, another former prisoner, claimed he was Tasered while laying facedown on a shower floor at the jail. In November 2005, three former Bradley County jail prisoners filed a federal lawsuit alleging the use of Tasers on handcuffed prisoners, among other claims.
On Friday the 13th, January 2006, 29-year-old Daryl Kelley's luck ran out in the Harris County Jail. Kelley, who was 62 and weighed 300 lbs., collapsed in his cell 40 minutes after an Emergency Response Team guard Tasered him to facilitate a cell move. Sheriffs Department Maj. Don McWilliams said, It is fully routine to use Tasers to move large, violent inmates.
It may also have been routine to beat him as well, as alleged by his relatives. Quanell X, a Black Panther Nation spokesman, accused deputies of murdering Kelley. Pearline Kelley, Daryl's mother, said her son had bi-polar disorder and became violent only when not on his medications. "He was just sick", she lamented. "They Tasered him to death," she continued." They killed him at the county jail." Kelleys crime was the unauthorized use of a car.
Just three days later, 24-year-old African-American Shmekia Lewis died in Jefferson Countys Mid-County Jail in Beaumont, two hours after she was Tasered during booking. Adjacent holding cell occupant Jason Chambliss related, She was arguing and hollering and carrying on so they decided to go in there and beat up on her a little bit. They hog-tied her hands and feet to the toilet, which is metal, and Tasered her over and over again. They also gave her a shot of something with a syringe. She was real quiet after that. One guard was yelling, turn it up, turn it up, hit her again. They wanted to throw her in the shower next and Taser her there, but changed their minds and left her where she was. Noel Casper, another prisoner in a nearby cell, corroborated Chambliss account by telephone, adding, "When they were done they just left her there. When they came back about two hours later and saw she wasnt moving that was when all hell broke loose."
Several days later, on January 21, 2006, in sworn affidavits, both prisoners recanted the statements they originally made to the Port Arthur News. Sheriff Woods denied having hog-tied Lewis, claiming she was restrained in an upright position and only Tasered once. One can only wonder, with the two percipient witnesses having inexplicitly recanted their previous statements (while still in the sheriff's custody), why the preliminary autopsy report revealed no obvious cause of death.
In sharp contrast to Texas justice, Spokane County Sheriff Mark Sterk was open to a fair determination of the cause of death of 39-year-old Benites Saimon Sichiro, who died during surgery after being Tasered and three fights with guards. Autopsy results indicated that Sichiro died from a lacerated liver, which came from blunt force to his torso. Although Spokane guards admitted kneeing Sichiro in the torso twice during violent scuffles, and admitted Tasering him three times, they were unsure if their actions caused the fatal injury.
Sichiro had already garnered a black eye, bruised lip, swollen face, and neck and groin abrasions, which may have come from pre-arrest fights. However, his niece, Sisi Rudolph, said the pre-arrest altercation only caused the black eye and facial abrasions. During a cell move Sichiro allegedly bit a guard on the arm, at which point the kneeing occurred and he lost consciousness. Jail staff administered CPR while they awaited an ambulance. Medical examiner reports expressed doubt that Tasering caused Sichir's death.
Regardless, Sheriff Sterk wanted to ascertain if a homicide occurred from pre-arrest injuries or in-custody injuries. "If we're involved in this and we caused these injuries, we want to make sure that we document them well ... and the truth comes out about how we handled the situation", he stated. Sheriff Sterk will have company. The FBI joined the investigation in February 2006. All eight guards involved in altercations with Sichiro were placed on routine administrative leave but were reinstated a few days later.
Taser International Under Scrutiny
Not surprisingly, Taser International has been scrutinized due to the shocking number of deaths caused by its products. Many investors who took stock in the numerous reports of in-custody Taser-related fatalities have sold their stock (NASDAQ symbol TASR), driving the price down from a high of $33 to $7.59/share as of September 15, 2006. Not only did sales slump, but profits plummeted as well. Jittery investors were further spooked by a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission probe into whether manipulated information tainted stock sales. Additionally, the SEC questioned company executives who dumped their own shares just before a large drop in the stock price in November 2005.
A class-action suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Arizona on behalf of shareholders alleging securities fraud, and on August 9, 2006 it was reported that Taser International had agreed to settle the case and several similar lawsuits for $20 million plus $1.75 million for the plaintiffs' attorney fees. The company also took a charge of $18 million for its own litigation and related expenses.
Taser International further bowed to an investigation by Arizonas Attorney General's office, which demanded more accurate product warnings, particularly to limit the use of the term non-lethal. The Attorney General's complaint was that Taser Internationals safety claims may have understated the risks of serious harm. The firm agreed in December 2005 to an 18-point product warning and made changes in its training materials, including acknowledging the stun guns dangerousness, changing the way the company uses the word safe, limiting medical safety claims, and deleting statements that Tasers are harmless.
Nonetheless, while the company continues to maintain that its stun guns have never caused a death or serious injury, with the same fervor of Tobacco Institute scientists who once insisted that smoking had no relationship to lung cancer, in a March 2006 report Amnesty International found there have been 156 deaths following Taser use in the U.S. and Canada since 2001. In seven of those cases medical examiners or coroners determined that Tasers were the cause of death, while in 16 cases Tasers were found to be a contributing factor.
Separately, the Metropolitan Municipalities EMS Medical Directors Association, representing doctors in emergency medical departments in 30 major cities, recommended in February 2006 that Tasers be used only sparingly, when possible. They acknowledged the syndrome of lethality that attends psychologically medicated victims who are shocked. Their recommendation came shortly after a study published in the January 2006 Journal of the National Academy of Forensic Engineers, which concluded that electric shocks from Tasers were 39 times more powerful than the manufacturer claimed, and sufficiently strong to cause fatal heart rhythms. The study's author, James Ruggieri, found that the Taser M18 produced 14 pulses per second at 50 watts per pulse, versus the manufacturer's claim of 10 pulses per second at 1.76 watts per pulse. These findings place the weapon well into the lethal category, he concluded.
Taser International begs to differ and is suing Ruggieri for defamation, including for his expert testimony in a wrongful-death lawsuit in 2005. Taser brands Ruggieri as lacking in requisite technical expertise (calling him a high school dropout with no medical training, despite Ruggieris masters degree in computer science and professional engineer licensing in five states), and labels his claims exaggerated, erroneous and beyond the laws of physics. Independent Stanford graduate engineer Robert Nabours found Ruggieris conclusions credible, including Ruggieris observation that the electrical resistance of skin tissue breaks down under shock, permitting Tasers to deliver 704 watts of power as opposed to the advertised 18 watts. The Journal article was peer reviewed prior to publication.
Additional research may bolster or undercut the companys claims regarding the safety of its products. Dr. Christine Hall, a Canadian emergency room physician, is presently working on a proposed national research project to understand the effects of Tasers and pepper spray on people who exhibit an agitated state known as excited delirium. The three-year study, funded by $1.5 million from the Canadian Police Research Centre, will examine suspects who die in police custody as a result of Taser shocks or pepper spray exposure. Taser International already admits that its less lethal weapons could be deadly when used on people suffering from excited delirium. A June 2005 bulletin from the company cautioned against repeatedly Tasering such victims.
A Not-So-Stunning Outlook
If Taser International suffers financially from lawsuits for wrongful deaths caused by its less lethal stun gun weapons, it won't cause any pain to the firm's chairman, Phillips Smith (who recently announced his retirement), its president, Tom Smith, or its CEO, Rick Smith. The trio sold their stock in the company in late 2004 for over $90 million, far exceeding the $25 million Taser earned in the past four years even in cumulative revenues. And just in time. Tasers 2005 fourth-quarter report revealed a 98% drop in profits on lower sales and higher expenses as the company fought lawsuits, including $7 million the firm invested in public relations efforts to shore up its flagging image. CEO Rick Smith reported that 40 new lawsuits were filed against Taser in 2005, leaving a backlog of 43 lawsuits after 12 were dismissed.
The firm's future profitability may well be tied to its latest products. The company has marketed a camera-equipped Taser, the Taser-cam, which is being touted in a The Truth is Undeniable ad campaign. Taser International is also developing 12-gauge shotgun shells that deliver less lethal shocks up to 300 feet away. Funded by $500,000 from the U.S. Office of Naval Research, Taser hopes to release the product in 2007. It will truly cause incapacitation, said company spokesman Steve Tuttle. The eXtended Range Electra-Muscular Projectile (XREP) will reportedly deliver the blunt-force trauma of a fast-moving baseball plus the electrical shock of a stun gun.
Presumably, Taser will continue its practice of training its law enforcement customers to test the company's less lethal weapons on their own officers, to verify the products safety. But not everyone is willing to try Tasers on their own personnel. The Aberdeen Proving Grounds, where the Army develops and tests weapons, found that testing Tasers on Army personnel in training is not recommended, given the potential risk.
Sources: Associated Press, Arizona Republic, Barrons, Palm Beach Post, Sacramento Bee, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, Sun-Sentinel, The Ledger, Pensacola News Journal, Miami Herald News, Orlando Sentinel, www.bradenton.com, Gwinnett Daily Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kansas City Star, Urbana News-Gazette, New York Times, USA Today, Spokesman Review, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Charlotte Observer, The Herald, Tuscaloosa News, WFMY News2 (Greensboro), Beaumont Enterprise, Port Arthur News, KBTV4 News, KPRC2 News, UPI.
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