Man dies after police Taser shock

Death is second in city in a month related to stun guns

May 16, 2007|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,sun reporter

Frantic and sweating, the man pounded on doors and pleaded for help, telling residents on Aisquith Street that someone was chasing him, according to witnesses.

At one rowhouse, occupants said, the man kicked in a back door, dashed upstairs and into a bedroom and barricaded himself in with a 16-year-old boy. Within minutes, the youth's quick-acting older brother and a neighbor pulled him to safety.

Members of the Baltimore police SWAT team tried to calm the man down, but he was agitated and "acting very erratically," and was possibly under the influence of drugs, said spokesman Matt Jablow.

An officer then stunned him with a Taser, and paramedics rushed him to a hospital, where he died more than an hour later Monday night, authorities said.

The Taser, which can deliver a 50,000-volt shock, is supposed to be a non-lethal alternative to guns. In the past month, two people have died in the city shortly after police shot them with a Taser, and a third person died in Baltimore County in March. A small fraction of the city police force has been using stun guns for the past eight years. The two deaths this year are city's first fatalities from use of the weapon.

Autopsy reports are pending in the three deaths. Dr. David Fowler, Maryland's chief medical examiner, said the process in evaluating each person's death "is long and very complex," and his office isn't going to rush to judgment.

"These are literally the first [such deaths] that we've seen," he said.

Fowler said that a theory - known as "excited delirium" - has been proposed as a possible explanation for people who die suddenly from cardiac arrhythmia due to an over-stimulation of the heart either by adrenalin or drugs.

But Fowler said he has found no medical research that indicates that people who are in such a state are more susceptible to dying after being hit with a stun gun. A National Institute of Justice task force is conducting one of the first nationwide reviews of stun-gun-related deaths.

"There's nothing that I've seen which indicates that somebody who is in an `excited delirium' state is more susceptible to a stun gun discharge. There've been none reported at this time that I am aware of," Fowler said.

This year, Baltimore police officers have killed five people in confrontations in which firearms were used - the same number killed by police all of last year. In those five confrontations, police said, officers have recovered handguns that were being held by the person shot by police.

Jablow said city officers have used stun guns about 50 times over the past year. Beginning in 1999, the department began issuing the stun guns to some supervisors and shift commanders in each of the city's nine police districts, and then last year equipped the SWAT team with the devices. About 100 officers carry them, he said.

Police said the man went from house to house on the East Baltimore street, knocking on front and back doors. Lena Oxendine, 33, said the man pounded on her back door while her young son and an 11-year-old niece were playing outside. "He was frantic. He was sweating real bad. It was like he was trying to get help," said Oxendine.

The man pleaded, "Can you let me in? Can you let me in? They're trying to get me," Oxendine said. "I'm like, `I can't help you.' I don't think he was trying to hurt anybody. He thought somebody was trying to hurt him."

Police said they received reports that the man was armed with knives, and that he had barricaded himself inside a home with a hostage in the 2600 block of Aisquith St.

"He wasn't in his right frame of mind," said a resident of the rowhouse, who said her 16-year-old son was briefly blocked inside the room by the man. The woman spoke on the condition of anonymity because she feared for her safety.

Police said they arrived at the house at 8:42 p.m. believing an armed man was holding a teen hostage. One witness told police he had three knives, but authorities said he was unarmed.

Officers tried to calm the man, and about 9 p.m. SWAT officers entered the bedroom and fought with him. After the Taser stunned the man, police said, an ambulance was called at 9:04 p.m. Paramedics arrived four minutes later and left for Union Memorial Hospital at 9:30 p.m. Police said he was pronounced dead at the hospital at 10:24 p.m.

The man killed Monday night has not been identified by police. But William J. Heath, 71, confirmed that his son, Terrell Heath, 31, was the man killed.

William Heath said his son had struggled with drug addiction and was supposed to be spending his nights at a West Baltimore halfway house. "That's where he was supposed to be [Monday] night," he said. "I was told he was on some kind of new drug that makes you lose your mind."

Jablow said the officer who used the stun gun has been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation.

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