Attorneys working for the City of Portland are claiming a surprise new defense in the 2006 death in custody of James Chasse jr, a man with schizophrenia: That Chasse died of “excited delirium.”
“Excited delirium” is a controversial medical term often associated with deaths in police custody where a Taser has been deployed. We quoted state medical examiner Karen Gunson on it last year, in preparation for a lengthy feature on Taser use by Portland cops:
Likewise, there is controversy around the existence, or otherwise, of "Excited Delirium," a cause of death often associated with Taser deployment, but not recognized by the American Medical Association. Oregon State Medical Examiner Karen Gunson tells the Mercury "I don't actually think the term is controversial," meanwhile Dalia Hashad, director of the USA program for Amnesty International, says "we need to ask why the person died, not make up the term to explain the situation."
Indeed, Gunson has ruled, in the past, that people died of excited delirium, despite controversy around the term. For example, she did so in the 1998 death of Richard "Dickie" Dow, a man suffering with schizophrenia who was crushed by a pile of police officers. The city ended up paying out $380,000 in that case.
In the Chasse autopsy, however, Gunson ruled out excited delirium as a cause of death, ruling instead that Chasse died of blunt force trauma to the chest, caused by another person or a fall. Gunson has since been quoted in depositions saying Chasse's 26 breaks to 16 ribs were most likely the result of kicks or a "dropped knee" by cops. Gunson found 48 separate abrasions or contusions on Chasse's body, including 16 possible blows to the head. Chasse would most likely have lived if he had been given proper medical care, Gunson said.
If the city has procured experts of its own who are willing to say that Chasse may have died of excited delirium, then their testimony will run against that of the state medical examiner.
The city’s new excited delirium defense also appears to have come as a surprise to Tom Steenson, attorney for the Chasse family. Court documents show that Federal Court Judge Garr King granted Steenson extra time to consult with his own medical experts during a phone conference on November 12—Steenson now has until December 18 to respond with expert testimony of his own, with a trial still tentatively scheduled for next March.
It is against the city attorney's policy to comment on ongoing lawsuits, and Steenson declined comment this morning.
"It looks like the city is grasping at straws," says Jason Renaud with the Mental Health Association of Portland, an outspoken critic of the city's response to Chasse's death. "It's fairly clear from the forensic evidence that Chasse died of blunt force trauma, resulting from the brutal beating by the three police officers. We can also see from the video evidence and testimony that he was unconscious at times after the Tasering, and that he was denied proper medical attention."
"Continuing to defend the indefensible erodes and degrades the authority of our leaders in city hall," Renaud continues.
"Excited delirium was a term invented to try to blame deaths in custody on something other than police interaction, but in almost all cases the people would not have died if the police had not used violence on them," says Dan Handelman with Portland Copwatch.