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Mother's fear of Taser's effect lands her in court

MIAMI — In the early afternoon of April 22, Ana Ramirez called 911 and said she needed help because her Down syndrome son, Christian Pagan, was "very aggressive." It had happened before, and police and emergency technicians had talked to him and calmed him down.

During the 911 call, which was recorded, Pagan can be heard yelling and growling in the background. His mother is so distraught she fumbles their address and the dispatcher tells her to speak in Spanish.

"He's a handicapped boy," Ramirez says in Spanish. "I don't want them to shoot him with a Taser."

Ramirez had reason to be afraid of the stun device that law enforcement officers routinely use to subdue people they consider to be threats to themselves or others. A friend of her son's had died in 2008 after being hit with electrical jolts from a Taser. Her own son had a heart condition, which made her fear what a Taser might do to him.

In the end, this knowledge would work against her.

During the call, the 911 dispatcher tells police that the young man has Down syndrome, but says nothing about the mother's request not to use a Taser.

Minutes later, according to police reports and witnesses, Miami-Dade police Officer Idania Felipe arrived at the family's spacious townhouse in West Miami. Pagan, who is 5 feet 2 but husky, ran outside, his hand bleeding from punching a door. He was not armed.

"I wanted to show the police officer my hurt hand," he later explained.

His mother ran after him, grabbing him. But he broke away and turned in the direction of the officer about 6 feet away.

"Christian was walking fast. He wasn't charging the officer. But I guess she saw it differently and Tasered him," said neighbor Alex Rodriguez, who watched from across the street.

The Taser probes embedded in Pagan's chest, close to the scar from his open-heart surgery, and he fell to the ground. His mother ran toward him yelling, "Don't kill him! Christian, don't die!"

Felipe screamed at the mother: "Get out of the way!"

The officer delivered another jolt of electricity, then another. The stun gun's electronic memory system later showed Felipe delivered three electrical jolts.

Pagan, 25, writhed on the ground, screaming and groaning. His brother, Hernando Yunis, tried to pull the probes out. Officer Felipe yelled again for Pagan's mother and brother to "move out of the way."

Other officers arrived and forced Pagan on his stomach, handcuffing his hands behind his back and cuffing his ankles. An ambulance took him to a nearby hospital for cardiac observation and treatment for a sprained neck.

Pagan was Baker Acted — declared a danger to himself or others — but he was not charged with threatening the officer's safety.

"Because of his mental illness and disabilities, we didn't arrest Christian," said Miami-Dade police spokesman Javier Baez. "But his mother and brother were a different story."

Ramirez and Yunis were taken to jail and charged with "resisting arrest without violence," a misdemeanor. When they go to trial in a month they will argue they had more to fear from an officer with a Taser than the officer had to fear from an unarmed, mentally disabled young man.

• • •

In her arrest report, Felipe, who has been with the force for nine years and a 2009 finalist for Officer of the Year, wrote: "I responded to a violent domestic disturbance … involving a violent adult with mental illness. Upon arrival the front door suddenly opened and I observed (him) bleeding, visibly agitated and in a fit of rage. (He) violently charged at me.

"Fearing for my safety, I unholstered and deployed my ECD (electronic control device). As I was attempting to give loud verbal commands … Mrs. Ramirez obstructed the lawful performance of my duties by throwing herself on top of (Pagan) and (Yunis) placed his body between me and his mother. Due to (their) actions, I was in greater fear for my safety."

Ana Ramirez feared for her son, too. "I had to try to save him. He has a congenital heart problem," she said recently at her home. "His brother and I were afraid the Taser in his chest would kill him."

Pagan spent two weeks in the hospital because of cardiologists' concern about his heart.

Two years before, Xavia Jones, 29, and Pagan, then 23, were in a program for mentally disabled young adults. Jones, who was diagnosed as schizophrenic, had spent a few years in prison for fighting with police, but had stayed out of trouble for five years.

On Jan. 11, 2008, two Coral Gables police officers, citing "aggressive and combative behavior," shot Jones in the chest with their Tasers. After nine jolts of electricity, he went into cardiac arrest and died.

The autopsy report said the cause of death was "excited delirium syndrome," a controversial phrase coined by a South Florida medical examiner in 1989. The phrase is often given as the cause of death for suspects with drugs in their system who are shot with a Taser.

"When Christian's friend died, I started to read about Tasers," said Ramirez.

Police hit with the Taser's paralyzing electrical jolt during training say it feels like "getting hit with a jackhammer all over your body." Medical research says it can contribute to the deaths of people with compromised hearts or drugs in their systems.

In October 2009, Taser International, the Taser manufacturer, was concerned enough about medical findings to issue a warning to police to avoid the chest when shooting a Taser.

"The recommendation had been incorporated into our training," said Miami-Dade police spokesman Baez. "But Felipe was justified in shooting Pagan where she did because she feared for her safety."

How and where the officer shot Pagan is irrelevant, says Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Ed Griffith.

"The officer felt she was in danger of physical harm. So, her Tasering actions are protected by Florida statute. The mother felt her son was in danger of physical harm. But her actions are not protected by Florida statute. In fact, interfering with an arrest is against the law. It's a unique case that a jury should decide."

Ramirez and Yunis could get up to a year in prison if convicted at trial in October. Neither has been in trouble before.

Their attorney, Aubrey Webb, believes that what motivated mother and son to act — "trying to save Christian's life" — is a strong defense.

"Thank God the Taser didn't kill my son," said Ramirez.

"She should be thankful for the Taser," said Griffith, the assistant state attorney, "because the officer could've used her firearm."

Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8068.

Mother's fear of Taser's effect lands her in court 09/07/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 7, 2010 2:56pm]
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