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“Less Lethal” Tasers Continue to Kill Dozens of Prisoners

by Christopher Zoukis

Tasers have become a popular addi­tion on the utility belts of U.S. law enforcement officers. The devices, which fire small darts connected by wires to a stun gun, deliver a jolt of electricity that causes a paralyzing neuromuscular response – basically, they hurt a lot and immobilize the target for a short period of time. According to a spokesman for Axon Enterprises, Inc., which produces and sells Tasers, they can “make correctional environments significantly safer for all parties.”

They can also kill. [See: PLN, Oct. 2006, p.1].

According to a December 2017 investigative report by Reuters news service, Tasers have been linked to over 1,000 deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers since 1993. About 10 percent of those deaths occurred behind bars, and most of the 104 prisoners who died in Taser-related incidents have been killed since 2000. In the majority of cases, the detainee was either already in handcuffs or otherwise restrained when subjected to the fatal Taser shocks.

In May 2016, for example, Cody Franklin was pinned face-down in an Ozark, Arkansas jail cell, his hands cuffed behind his back, when police sergeant Joseph Griffith shocked him three times with a Taser. When officers got off of Franklin, 20, he was unconscious and motionless. He died at a hospital a short time later. Sgt. Griffith had not been re-certified in Taser training for over four years at the time of the incident.

The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, brought on by a “perfect storm” of non-lethal methamphetamine intoxication, stress from fighting with other prisoners and guards, and multiple Taser shocks. But local prosecutors refused to file charges, citing “insufficient evidence” that guards had caused Franklin’s death. Cody’s father disagreed.

“They say this is an in-custody death; this is an in-custody murder,” said Clayton Franklin, who has since filed a lawsuit over his son’s death. See: Franklin v. Franklin County, Arkansas, U.S.D.C. (W.D. Ark.), Case No. 2:17-cv-02016-PKH.

In Missouri, the state Attorney General’s office has taken a more active role in a death-by-Taser case. After 28-year-old Tory Sanders was pepper sprayed, Tasered multiple times and left for dead in his Mississippi County Detention Center jail cell on May 5, 2017, Attorney General Josh Hawley moved to strip Sheriff Cory Hutcheson of his duties. Hawley called his petition for a writ of quo warranto “extraordinary” and “very rarely used,” but said it was necessary in the case of Hutcheson, who already faced 18 criminal counts in two unrelated cases.

Sanders had been picked up by Charleston, Missouri police officers after he called them to report that he was lost and experiencing psychological distress. He was taken to the jail and examined by a mental health professional, who said he could be released. When a warrant check came back negative, jail staff told Sanders to go on his way.

He didn’t want to leave, however, and ultimately become agitated and was placed in a holding cell. The mental health professional returned, but this time recommended a 96-hour mental health hold. Sanders became convinced that the officers were out to get him and refused to leave his cell when ordered to do so. Sheriff Hutcheson decided that enough was enough, and after deploying pepper spray, led a team of guards into the cell. Sanders was shocked with a Taser at least three times; he then collapsed and died.

A judge ultimately granted Hawley’s request to have Hutcheson stripped of his authority as sheriff in May 2017. The Attorney General told the Sanders family that he will follow the investigation wherever it leads.

“Our investigation is ongoing,” Hawley said. “I say again to the family of Mr. Sanders that I am deeply, deeply sorry for their loss, and I say to them and to the people of Missouri that this office will conduct a full and vigorous investigation until we know what happened, and we’ll take all appropriate steps thereafter to see that justice is done.”

No one has apologized to Martini Smith since 2009, when the then-20-year-old pregnant woman miscarried five days after being shocked with a Taser while being booked into the Franklin County jail in Ohio. Guard Shawnda Arnold had already made Smith strip when she fired a Taser at Smith’s bare chest – because she couldn’t take her tongue ring out quickly enough.

“Why did you Tase me?” Smith asked. “I wasn’t harming nobody. I can’t just take it out.”

According to Sheriff’s Department policy, Tasers were not approved for use on prisoners in handcuffs, leg irons or a restraint chair, or on pregnant women. Smith was one of nine victims of improper Taser use at the jail who sued and won a total of $102,250 from Franklin County in 2011. Smith received $27,500 of that amount.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) intervened in the case because the county had “engaged in a pattern or practice of unlawful use of Tasers against detainees and inmates in their custody.” But county prosecutor Ron O’Brien said he did not bring criminal charges because none were sought by the DOJ or by Disability Rights Ohio (DRO), which represented the prisoners in the civil suit.

However, the DOJ does not recommend cases for prosecution by state officials. And DRO advocacy director Kerstin Sioberg-Witt added her organization doesn’t either, because it “is not an enforcement agency.”

The incident involving Smith was highlighted in the Reuters investigation, which revealed 80 uses of Tasers on prisoners at the Franklin County jail – 60 percent of whom were intoxicated or mentally ill – between 2008 and 2010. A total of 22 sheriff’s deputies were involved, but over two-thirds of the Taser incidents recorded in jail “use-of-force” reports were for Sgt. Mychal Turner and Sgt. Andrew Fing.

Turner used a Taser to deliver a total of 28 shocks. Fing used the device 26 times, including 14 times in a single encounter with Jibril Abdul-Muwwakil, a 23-year-old prisoner with mental health problems. An internal investigation determined that the Taser use was “justified,” though experts in a lawsuit filed partly on behalf of Abdul-Muwwakil called it an “excessive” violation of Taser product-safety warnings. (For example, Taser issued a warning in March 2013 that said people should not be shot in the chest with its devices, as that could lead to cardiac arrest. [See: PLN, April 2014, p.34].)

Turner’s 2009 Taserings also included Ralston Distin, 47, a “mentally disabled” prisoner who was shocked while in leg restraints, and Kevin Carey, 25, who had been arrested for drunk driving and was Tasered in the chest for failing to remove a nipple ring. Patrick Amburgey, 21, an arrestee who had passed out from intoxication, received five shocks at the jail for failing to sit on a bench. He also was reportedly pistol-whipped with a Taser.

“It was absolutely abuse,” said his brother, Logan Amburgey.

Sgt. Fing has since been promoted to lieutenant in the Internal Affairs Department. Turner, now a major, heads one of the county’s detention centers. Calling for an investigation after the Reuters report included video of Distin’s Tasering, Ohio state Senator Charleta Tavares said: “Any time a stun gun is used inappropriately – particularly in the video, where it looks as though it is just used over and over and it’s more like a prod that people would use on animals – that is criminal in my opinion.”

Corrections experts question the practice of arming jail and prison guards with Tasers due to the many ways the devices can be misused. Most of the time, improper use of a Taser by guards is the result of poor or nonexistent training, though sometimes Tasers are purposely misused. That was the case in San Bernardino County, California, where they were used to torture detainees at the West Valley Detention Center between 2009 and 2014. The county paid $2.8 million in 2017 to settle a series of lawsuits over the sadistic use of Tasers by jail guards.

John Hanson, a plaintiff in one of those cases, said he was subjected to “surprise attacks” from guards up to five times a day while he was held at the jail. The guards regularly used Tasers to shock prisoners in their genitals and were “truly enjoying the control and affliction of pain,” Hanson stated. Seven deputies were fired and others were retrained.

Tasers are most commonly found in local jails, though they are also used in 27 state prison systems to varying degrees. The devices are not used in federal prisons nor in those contracted to the two largest private prison operators, CoreCivic (formerly CCA) and the GEO Group, Inc.

That’s because Tasers have “high potential for abuse” behind bars, said DOJ consultant Martin.

“When you inflict pain, serious pain, for the singular purpose of inflicting pain, not to accomplish a tactical objective, what is that?” asked Martin, who has also served as general counsel for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “It meets the definition of the legal standard of excessive force, but it’s also torturous.”

Jamie Fellner, a former senior counsel at Human Rights Watch, said the problem with using Tasers in prisons and jails goes well beyond the actions of a few abusive guards.

“[T]here are no standards for training, good standards, at the local level,” said Fellner, who has authored studies on use of force behind bars. “You’ve got volatile people coming in and poorly trained staff.”

Of the 104 prisoners whose deaths resulted from Taser use, as reported by Reuters, over 80 percent were already restrained or under the control of law enforcement officers at the time they were shocked. Lawsuits were filed in 68 percent of those cases, and of those, 93 percent resulted in a damages award or settlement.

Despite Axon’s claim that only 24 deaths can be attributed to Taser use, damages totaling $172 million have been paid as a result of Taser-related deaths nationwide – which include cases involving police officers and other law enforcement agencies.

Martin, who has inspected more than 500 correctional facilities in the United States, said that in his experience, Tasers are not being used properly in carceral settings.

“Of the hundreds and hundreds of Taser incidents I’ve reviewed over the years in jails and prisons,” he stated, “I can count on one hand when it was used appropriately.”

In February 2018, a federal suit was filed on behalf of Cortney Jackson, 21, a prisoner with a history of mental illness incarcerated at the Muscogee County jail in Columbus, Georgia, after he was Tasered through his cell door 10 times for a total of 150 seconds.

Also in early 2018, three sheriff’s deputies at the McCracken County jail in Paducah, Kentucky opened a cell where John Parker was housed and immediately Tasered the unarmed prisoner, who suffered from cerebral palsy and arthritis. Internal investigator David Knight went to work figuring out whether the deputies had acted appropriately, but he was fired in March 2018 by jail chief Tonya Ray, who claimed he was insubordinate and stepped outside the chain of command to conduct what she said was an improper interview. Knight was reinstated in April, after county leaders warned Ray that firing Knight was illegal under the state’s Whistleblower Act.

At least Parker didn’t die after being Tasered, unlike many other prisoners. 

Sources: Huffington Post, Reuters, St. Louis River Front Times, San Jose Mercury News, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer, WPSD Local 6 News


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Related legal case

Franklin v. Franklin County, Arkansas