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Medical examiner blames victim's condition, not Taser, for death

Roney Wilson, 46, died after being Tasered Sept. 11, 2008, by a Hillsborough sheriff’s deputy.

Roney Wilson, 46, died after being Tasered Sept. 11, 2008, by a Hillsborough sheriff’s deputy.

TAMPA — A man who was Tasered three times last year by deputies died from "agitated delirium," a controversial condition frequently associated with Taser-related deaths, according to the Hillsborough County medical examiner.

Dr. Leszek Chrostowski said 46-year-old Roney Wilson's cause of death was "delirium with agitation due to schizoaffective disorder." And Wilson's manner of death, he said: "homicide."

But Chrostowski said he can't say if the Taser shock itself contributed to the death. He cited Taser International-sponsored studies that indicate a shock by a Taser does not cause cardiac arrhythmia.

Wilson's mother, Annie L. Wilson, isn't convinced. She watched the incident unfold from the front porch of her Plant City home on Sept. 11.

"To get him … with a Taser has a lot to do with his death," she said Wednesday.

Wilson's family called on deputies for help that day after he became upset, climbed inside his mother's Nissan Frontier, smashed out the windshield with his fist and refused to budge.

Wilson had a history of mental illness, and the family had admitted him for psychiatric care under Florida's Baker Act before.

This time, Chrostowski said, Wilson endured "physical stress" as he resisted deputies' attempts to restrain him.

Wilson's condition, which Chrostowski also called "agitated delirium," describes a controversial physical response that some in the medical field say can, by itself, cause sudden death. Symptoms include agitation, elevated heart rate, incoherence, bizarre behavior, a high pain tolerance and a compulsion to break glass.

But groups like Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union challenge whether the condition is real. The term isn't recognized in any medical or psychiatric literature, and the condition is not formally recognized by the American Medical Association or the American Psychiatric Association.

Those who die of excited delirium are usually in police custody, according to a report by the Canadian Medical Association Journal. The American Medical Association has called for further study of Tasers before issuing a position on their safety.

Dalia Hashad, a spokeswoman with Amnesty International, said the findings in Wilson's case are in line with what researchers found when they reviewed autopsy reports for 98 Taser-related deaths out of 334 reported over seven years.

Half of the 98, she said, were ruled homicides. Many were subjected to repeated shocks by the Taser. And many were in poor health or under the influence of stimulants, she said.

The study also found that Florida and California lead the nation in the number of Taser-related deaths over those seven years — 55 and 52, respectively, out of the 334.

Wilson, Chrostowski said, was already in a state of delirium when deputies arrived. He had a small amount of alcohol in his blood, as well as prescription antidepressants cyclobenzaprine, doxapine and mirtazapine.

"All of these medications can cause agitation themselves," he said. "If you put stress of apprehension on top of this, this … causes physiological collapse, and people die. There's nothing completely unusual about that."

Chrostowski said that the word homicide when used by the medical examiner does nothing to suggest intent to kill, but does indicate that a contributing factor in his death was "the hands of others."

Dick Bailey, public information officer for the medical examiner, said Chrostowski's findings will be sent to the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office for review — a matter of course in a homicide.

Hillsborough sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter said a preliminary investigation into the use of force found no fault with the deputies' actions.

Deputies Mary Angelo, Jessica Guthrie and Dustin Hartline returned to work shortly after the incident, she said. Angelo, who used the Taser, is married to St. Petersburg Times news researcher John Martin.

The Sheriff's Office will review the report with the state attorney, Carter said.

According to Taser International, Tasers are used by 13,000 law enforcement agencies. At the time of Wilson's death, the company reported 606,000 total deployments on suspects and 758,000 on volunteers. Taser International spokesman Steve Tuttle did not return messages left with his office Wednesday.

Times researcher Tim Rozgonyi contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at rcatalanello@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3383.

Medical examiner blames victim's condition, not Taser, for death 02/04/09 [Last modified: Thursday, February 5, 2009 12:08am]

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