The Dark Side

A bizarre, disputed, cocaine-fueled mania is killing Floridians, especially when they're jolted with a Taser.

The pictures display a John Mellencamp song come to life: shirtless and handsome, with an American flag tattoo on his biceps and a big, beef-eating smile.

It's clear there were two Donalds. There was the one Mom knew, the hard-working screen installer who made $40,000 a year, doted on his teenaged son, and grew husky on her home cooking.

Then there's the one police officers knew: arrested upward of 60 times on drug-possession and petty charges, one of those crackheads who swears to go clean but never does.

On October 19, 2005, Mug Shot Donald won the battle for good. That's the day West Palm Beach cops found him writhing and incoherent along 45th Street, wrestled him to the ground, hogtied him, and then struggled in vain to revive him when he suddenly went limp.

A Cops TV crew captured some of his grunted final words: "The cops are killing me... Mother, I love you. Father, I love you. Jesus, I love you."

The Palm Beach medical examiner's ascribed cause of death: "sudden respiratory arrest following physical struggling restraint due to cocaine-induced excited delirium."

What's really happening in the unaired footage depends upon whom you ask. To Dr. Mash, Donald's paranoia and imperviousness to pain — he withstood chokeholds and hard knees to the back and neck from four large male police officers — would appear to be classic excited delirium. But to Linda Lewis, who forced herself to watch the video only once, those same methods used on an unarmed, handcuffed man mean something altogether different. "Excited delirium didn't kill my son," she says. "The police killed my son."

Lewis filed an excessive force suit against the City of West Palm Beach and the five officers on the scene. Dr. Michael Baden, former New York City chief medical examiner, testified that Donald had in fact died of "asphyxia caused by neck compression."

A federal judge ruled that the police were protected from the lawsuit by "qualified immunity," and an Atlanta appeals court upheld the decision. This past February, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the suit without explanation.

But if excited delirium has become legal Kevlar for police departments and Taser International in wrongful death suits, a few bullets have recently pierced the vest.

In June 2008, a California jury ordered Taser to pay $6.2 million to the family of Robert Heston, who died after being stunned by Salinas police, despite the company's defense that he had died of excited delirium. Attorney John Burton argued that the company should have known its guns could cause cardiac arrest and issued a proper warning to police. Though the penalty was later reduced to $1 million, it was the first time Taser had lost in court.

And this May, the City of Fort Worth, Texas, paid a $2 million settlement to the family of 24-year-old Michael Patrick Jacobs, who died after being tased by cops last year. The settlement came with no admission of guilt, but an unprecedented step by Taser spoke volumes. The company issued a bulletin to police departments advising officers to avoid tasing people in the chest.

Taser spokesperson Tuttle, who maintains that his stun guns have still never been proven to be lethal, downplays that development. "The one thing we've always recommended is that the back would be a great shot because there's more nervous tissues and more muscles back there. We're going to have more problems if people aren't using it where we recommend it for maximum effectiveness."

The courtroom batterings of Taser and excited delirium do nothing for Linda Lewis, who has begged for "just an apology" from the officers involved in her son's death. There is no further recourse in her lawsuit against the City of West Palm Beach. Says her attorney, Ronald Kurpiers: "The police literally got away with murder."

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