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Autopsy Links Taser To Death In Mesa

Jan 14, 2005 | Arizona Republic

The Maricopa County medical examiner says shocks from a Taser stun gun contributed to the death of a man in Mesa, marking the 12th case nationwide linked to the weapon.

Milton Salazar, 29, of Flagstaff, died July 23, two days after a struggle with Mesa police officers attempting to arrest him for throwing candy at a store clerk. He was shocked twice during the scuffle, according to police reports.

The autopsy report comes as Taser's stock price is on a roller-coaster ride. It declined sharply after last week's announcements that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Arizona attorney general were looking into Taser's safety claims and an end-of-year sale.

However, in the past two days, Taser stock has climbed with reports supporting the stun gun's safety. The latest of those was an article published in the Pacing and Clinical Electrophysiology Journal concerning a cardiac safety study. The stock price rose 22 percent Thursday, closing at $20.80.

The cardiac study, outlined in a company news release, reports that tests on large pigs showed the stun gun would not cause a cardiac arrest. It relied on a simulated model that fired 6,000 volts of electricity instead of the one used by police departments that fires 50,000 volts.

Authors of the study, two of whom work for Taser, say the simulated model matched the characteristics of the stun gun used by police.

Taser has enjoyed remarkable success, going from a family business that went from the brink of bankruptcy to the nation's largest supplier of stun guns. It has armed nearly one-fifth of America's law enforcement agencies with Tasers and has made millions for investors in the past three years.

Police departments across the country credit the stun gun with reducing the number of police shootings, suspect injuries and lawsuits.

Detective Tim Gaffney, Mesa Police spokesman, said the autopsy report on Salazar's death will not affect the way his department uses Tasers.

"Taser has a long history of reducing injuries to police and suspects," he said.

Regarding Salazar's death, the company released this statement:

"Taser International is always concerned when a death tragically occurs in custody and mourns any loss of life. We have reviewed the autopsy reports of Milton Salazar. . . . (T)hese are consistent with other unfortunate sudden in-custody deaths where Taser devices are not deployed. We do know that Tasers continue to prevent numerous injuries and save lives every day."

Taser maintains that other factors were to blame for the deaths, including heart problems and drug addiction. They say the deaths would have occurred with or without use of the Taser.

For years, Taser said, no medical examiner had linked the stun gun to a death. But an investigation by The Arizona Republic this summer found those claims were based on autopsy reports that the Scottsdale-based company did not possess.

Using computer searches; autopsy, police and media reports; and Taser's own records, The Republic has identified 90 cases in the United States and Canada of death following a police Taser strike since September 1999.

Of those, medical examiners in nine cases have cited the gun as a cause or contributing factor in someone's death. In three other cases, medical examiners could not rule out the stun gun as a cause.

Maricopa County Medical Examiner Phillip Keen said Thursday that Taser was one of several factors that contributed to Salazar's death. He called it "part of a triggering event."

"The stress from the physical struggle and Taser stun-gun injuries is (a) contributing factor," the autopsy report reads.

The cause of Salazar's death was listed as excited delirium due to cocaine intoxication. "Excited delirium" involves suspects whose adrenaline levels spike during exertion, including struggles with police, causing cardiac arrest.

According to police, Salazar was throwing rocks at motorists on Dobson Road, then entered a convenience store and threw candy bars at the clerk. When an officer tried to arrest him, Salazar lay on the floor with his hands underneath his body and refused to obey commands.

Officer Cynthia Stull said that she shocked Salazar but that it had no effect. She said Salazar continued to kick and yell. Another officer was able to get a handcuff around one of Salazar's hands before Stull shocked Salazar a second time. Stull said that she struggled to put Salazar into handcuffs and that when she rolled him over, he "immediately turned white."

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