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Autopsy Links Another Death To Taser

Aug 6, 2004 | Arizona Republic

An Alabama medical examiner cited electrical shock from a Taser stun gun as a cause in the death of a mental patient two years ago.

It is the sixth death that an Arizona Republic investigation has linked to the stun gun. The Scottsdale manufacturer claims that Tasers have never caused a death or injury.

LeRoy Riddick, Alabama regional medical examiner, reported in a June 28, 2002, autopsy that Clever Craig Jr., 46, died of a heart attack during an episode of delirium "following electrical shock from Taser while resisting arrest."

It marks the fourth case in which a medical examiner has cited Taser as a cause or a contributing factor in the death of a suspect in police custody. In two other cases, medical examiners said the stun gun could not be ruled out as a cause of death.

Officials with Taser International Inc. said other medical experts who reviewed Craig's case this week found Taser played no part in his death.

"We haven't seen anything that fits electrical death," Taser Chief Executive Officer Rick Smith said. The report, he said, "is more descriptive in nature than causal."

The Taser stun gun is marketed as an alternative to deadly force and is used by more than 5,000 law enforcement agencies, including every major police department in the Valley.

For years, Taser has cited autopsy reports and medical examiner findings as proof that the gun never caused an injury or death.

The Republic found that Taser did not possess those autopsy reports. Instead, it relied on anecdotal information from police and media accounts.

In a report on Craig's death, Taser officials stated that he died of heart disease.

"Oral discussions with (police) departmental personnel indicate cause of death was cardiovascular bivalve heart disease," Taser reported. "One valve was bad. With the struggle, the cardiovascular collapse caused the death. No final report available."

Smith has rejected the findings in each of the cases linking Taser to a death, saying medical examiners are generalists who don't have the expertise to examine fatalities following a shock from a stun gun. He said deaths would have occurred with or without the stun gun, a result of pre-existing health conditions and drug intoxication. Unlike the other five cases, Craig's autopsy revealed no traces of opiates, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, amphetamines or cocaine.

Taser did not have a copy of Craig's autopsy until The Republic provided it this week.

The newspaper has identified 44 cases in the United States and Canada of death following a police Taser strike from September 1999 to March 2004. Using public-records laws, the newspaper has requested autopsy reports for each case and has obtained 23.

Riddick wrote that when Craig was shocked, the man was suffering from excited delirium, a state in which suspects work themselves into a frenzy during confrontations with police. Riddick concluded that the death was a homicide. He could not be reached for comment this week.

Craig, a paranoid schizophrenic, died June 28, 2002.

Relatives called 911 around 4 a.m. to report that Craig was acting strangely. When police arrived, they found the 6-foot, 200-pound Craig holding a barbell. Officers ordered him to drop the weight. He refused, and they shocked him twice in about 40 seconds. According to police, Craig struggled for five minutes after being shocked. When officers handcuffed him, he was unresponsive.

Two months ago, a Mobile, Ala., grand jury determined officers were justified in firing their Tasers.

Doctors asked to review the case by Taser said the fact that Craig struggled after being shocked shows the stun gun did not contribute to his death.

"This is conclusive evidence that he was not in ventricular fibrillation after receiving the Taser discharge," Wayne McDaniel and Robert Stratbucker wrote in an Aug. 4 report.

Edward Freelander, department of pathology chairman at Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences, questioned Riddick's autopsy.

"Dr. Riddick's lack of attention to the existing, extremely serious heart disease is very strange," Freelander wrote in an Aug. 3 report. "Despite some strange language, there is nothing to suggest that the Taser fragmented the heart or that the current went anywhere near it to cause a rhythm problem."

Craig's relatives and friends are convinced that the Taser is to blame.

"It triggered a heart attack," said Lee Pease of Mobile, who is married to Craig's ex-wife.

An Alabama state trooper for 26 years, Pease knows Tasers are popular with law enforcement officers. But he doesn't trust the stun gun.

"I don't think there has been enough training on it," he said. "I certainly support the police but this I don't know."

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