From The Oregonian – October 4, 2006
James P. Chasse Jr., the 42-year-old man who died Sept. 17 after three officers struggled to arrest him, suffered more than a dozen fractured ribs, some that punctured his left lung and caused massive internal bleeding, according to an autopsy report released by his family’s attorney Tuesday.
The state medical examiner’s report revealed 16 of Chasse’s ribs were fractured; 26 individual rib bones in the front and back of his rib cage were broken, splintered or crushed after his initial encounter with two Portland officers and a Multnomah County sheriff’s deputy.
He also suffered multiple bruises, contusions and abrasions to his head, chest and abdomen. Toxicology tests revealed no alcohol or drugs in his system.
Further, a deputy medical examiner’s initial investigative report done the night of Chasse’s death indicates that American Medical Response ambulance medics who first evaluated a handcuffed Chasse on the street said they were not told Chasse may have gone into respiratory arrest, although police called an ambulance because they believed Chasse was unconscious. The medics also said they were unaware officers had used a Taser on Chasse, the report says.
The ambulance medics said they found Chasse conscious and his vital signs in the normal range, and let the police officers decide whether to transport Chasse to a hospital, Dwayne Bigoni, the deputy medical examiner, wrote in a narrative report.
Police then shackled Chasse’s ankles together, tied his feet to his hands in a “hog-tie” and drove him to jail, accusing him of resisting arrest and interfering with police. There, jail nurses determined he needed further medical attention, and police drove Chasse to Portland Adventist Hospital. He died en route.
When Chasse’s body arrived for autopsy, his left chest appeared “flattened,” the report said.
Call for inquest
The state medical examiner, Dr. Karen Gunson, cited blunt-force chest trauma as his cause of death and wrote that the injuries were caused “by another person or a fall.” Gunson ruled the death an accident, but Chasse’s family, witnesses and a police watchdog group has questioned her ruling, and at least one state lawmaker has called for a public inquest into Chasse’s death.
Tom Steenson, the family’s attorney, released the autopsy report because Chasse’s family was disturbed by the extent of the injuries and is continuing its own independent investigation of his death. They highlighted that Chasse, who suffered from schizophrenia, had a slight build, was 5 foot 9 inches tall and weighed 145 pounds.
“Jim had a difficult life, and its end was horribly, horribly unjust,” Mark Chasse said when eulogizing his older brother at a private service on Friday.
The family attorney released the full autopsy report on the first day the Multnomah County district attorney’s office presented the case to a grand jury for review. The grand jury is expected to hear more testimony this morning and make a ruling on whether anyone is criminally liable in Chasse’s death.
Dan Handelman, who leads Portland Copwatch, wrote a letter to the district attorney this week demanding that his office present an “aggressive and thorough” case to the grand jury.
“Even if the officers did not intend to kill Mr. Chasse, they should have known that their actions could cause his death,” Handelman wrote. “It seems reasonable that a jury could indict the officers for criminally negligent homicide.”
On Tuesday, District Attorney Michael Schrunk responded to Handelman that the entire grand jury file would be turned over to Chasse’s family upon conclusion of the review. But he cautioned that the grand jury’s role is only to decide the narrow question of criminal liability.
“The answer to this question is not the same as to the one of whether the death was justified or whether anyone is or is not civilly liable in relation to that death,” Schrunk wrote. “It is also not a decision as to whether appropriate procedures or resources are available for the mentally ill in circumstances such as these.”
According to police, officers spotted Chasse acting oddly as if he either were on drugs or had a mental disorder, and then possibly urinating in the street before they walked up to him. When he ran, they chased him. Police said one officer pushed Chasse in the back, “which caused him to stumble to the ground.”
What witnesses saw
Witnesses, though, said three officers forcefully tackled Chasse to the pavement and landed on top of him, then wrestled with him, repeatedly kicking and punching him in the chest and head.
Police say that Chasse tried to bite one officer, and that one officer pulled out a Taser gun and placed it to Chasse’s torso to stun him. Police said the Taser didn’t have an effect. Witnesses said it appeared Chasse went unconscious, and an ambulance and firefighter medics were called.
Portland Police Chief Rosie Sizer had no comment on the autopsy Tuesday. The chief and a supervising sergeant from the Detective Division plan to hold a news conference following the grand jury’s ruling on the police investigation. She told members of the Chief’s Forum on Monday morning that she would not prejudge the officers’ actions until the investigation was done. Portland Sgt. Kyle Nice, Officer Christopher Humphreys and Multnomah County Sheriff’s Deputy Brett Burton remain on paid leave as the investigation continues.
“We have to wait until the grand jury is done,” said Officer Cathe Kent, a police spokeswoman. “The whole point is so the jury hears things firsthand and not backdoors like this.”
Jason Sorrick, spokesman for AMR Ambulance, said he could not discuss the ambulance medics’ actions in regard to Chasse. “Federal privacy rules are pretty clear,” Sorrick said. “We can’t discuss anything in regard to patient care.”
Why the medics would defer to police on whether to take a person they examine to the hospital, Sorrick declined to answer as well. AMR medics declined to be interviewed by Portland detectives investigating the case and had to be subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury.