The City of Portland has filed expert testimony that indicates they’ll be arguing that a component of James P. Chasse Jr.’s death in police custody was due to “excited delirium,” a clue to the direction of the city’s defense as it prepares for trial.
The case’s federal court docket suggests that the Chasse family attorney, Tom Steenson, may have been surprised, because he asked a judge this month for more time to obtain his own expert opinion on the subject, and was given until Dec. 18 to file it.
Both sides have declined to comment.
Three officers arrested Chasse, 42, on Sept. 17, 2006 after one of the officers said he appeared to be urinating in the street. There was no evidence he had urinated in the street. Police said he ran when they approached. They chased him, knocked him to the ground and struggled to handcuff him.
Medics called to the scene did not take him to a hospital, saying Chasse’s vital signs were normal. But jail staff refused to book him because of his physical condition. Chasse, who suffered from schizophrenia, died while being taken to the hospital in a police car. The medical examiner said he died of broad-based blunt-force trauma to the chest.
Had Chasse received proper medical attention, he probably would have lived, Dr. Karen Gunson, the state medical examiner, said in a deposition.
The autopsy found Chasse suffered 26 breaks to 16 ribs, some of which punctured his left lung, and 46 separate abrasions or contusions. In the autopsy report, Gunson made no mention of “excited delirium” as she has in other Oregon cases.
But the city may be relying on recent developments by the American College of Emergency Physicians, which in October formally recognized “excited delirium” as a unique syndrome and urged greater education for law enforcement and emergency medical services. In the past, the condition has been the sole purview of medical examiners, noted Mark L. DeBard, chairmain of the group’s Excited Delirium Task Force.
Excited delirium remains a controversial condition that increasingly has been identified as contributing to deaths following Taser use and has prompted police and human rights groups in North America to call for greater independent study. Increasingly, police departments and medical examiners are using the term to explain why some people die in police custody.
The American College of Emergency Physicians says the condition is marked by aggressive and erratic behavior. It lists the “triad of conditions that are the hallmark” of excited delirum as: delirium, physiological excitation, and psychomotor agitation. A typical patient usually has acute drug intoxication, usually from cocaine, or less often has a serious history of mental illness on multiple medications, the organization says.
Dr. Vincent DiMaio, a forensic pathologist who co-wrote a book on excited delirium, calls it “an acute psychotic episode,” usually brought on by schizophrenia or drug abuse, in which a person becomes uncontrollable and seems to develop superhuman strength.
But the American Civil Liberties Union has called the diagnosis problematic, charging that police use it as a means of explaining away what may be excessive use of force.
In 2006, Gunson ruled Timothy W. Grant, of Medford, died from an accidental cocaine overdose, which caused a state of “excited delirium,” and not from the two Taser stun gun shocks that a Portland officer applied. In that case, Gunson ruled she found a high level of cocaine in Grant’s blood, which caused high blood temperature, agitation and incoherent shooting.
Suspects in the throes of excited delirium commonly display incredible strength, are impervious to pain, growl like an animal, are aggressive and take off their clothing because they become superheated, researchers say.
Police argued that Fouad Kaady, a 27-year old, was in the throes of excited delirium when Clackamas County sheriff’s deputy and a Sandy officer shot him. The Gresham man was unarmed, naked, burned and bleeding when shot to death in 2005. In that case, though, Dr. Chris Young, deputy state medical examiner, told investigators he thought Kaady’s behavior was caused by drug intoxication, and that there was a possibility of it being caused by shock. Asked by an investigator about excited delirium, Young said he was not aware of it, according to a Sept. 20 report.