I-Team: Can Tasers kill?

I-Team asks Taser CEO tough questions

CINCINNATI - The parents of Everette Howard want to know why their son is dead after being Tasered on UC's campus in August and say they don't want any other parent to have to go through what they're dealing with.

The I-Team went to the heart of the Howard investigation to try to find answers to one key question: Can Tasers kill?

The I-Team traveled to Chicago to speak one-on-one with the CEO of Taser International. We also went to Indianapolis to talk with a prominent cardiologist who's come out swinging against the company concerning its warnings.

At the International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in Chicago, we caught up with Taser International CEO Rick Smith.

Smith showed us Taser's newest weapon for sale, the X-2. Smith explained to us how the X-2 precisely controls the weapon's electrical current.

"This is measuring the electrical charge of every pulse as it comes out of the device," Smith said.

Smith also says the new Taser includes an option for an automatic shutoff.

"You'll hear it for four seconds, it'll sound an alert then it will shut off, so it alerts the officer then it shuts off and they would have to re-trigger the device at that point in time," said Smith.

The safety advances of the new weapon deal directly with the safety concerns over the one used on UC Upward Bound student Everette Howard before he died in August, and used by police agencies across the Tri-State. It's also the same model weapon involved in the most damaging court ruling against Taser International to date.

This past summer, a jury awarded the family of 17-year-old Darryl Turner $10 million, ruling Taser knew its weapon could kill and didn't tell police.

Dr. Douglas Zipes is an electrophysiologist specializing in heart rhythm. He's published hundreds of articles and won numerous awards for his knowledge of clinical cardiology. The cardioverter he invented is keeping former Vice President Dick Cheney's heart ticking.

Dr. Zipes takes issue with Taser's claims that its weapons cannot cause death.

"Taser has said it can't happen with Taser equipment because the pulses are too short, the energy is insufficient and it can't capture the heart," Dr. Zipes said. "That's absolutely, totally wrong."

In March 2008, court records reveal store clerk Darryl Turner was Tasered for 37 seconds, until he fell, and soon dies. So what caused it??

Dr. Zipes says adrenalin may have already spiked Turner's heart rate, but he says the Taser spiked it beyond what it could handle.

Dr. Zipes explained that where the two Taser darts hit is key.

"So the Taser darts need to in some way span part of the heart or be close enough to the heart so that the electricity traveling between the two darts is able to reach the heart itself and capture the heart."

But that's not the only factor. 

"One of the important ingredients as to why somebody dies and somebody else doesn't is the duration of the Taser shock," Dr. Zipes added.

We asked Attorney John Burton, who tried the Turner case, if he thought the officer involved in that Tasering believed Tasers could kill. Burton strongly believes he didn't.

"Oh he absolutely did not know that Tasers could kill," Burton said. "He never would have used the device in such a trivial setting had he understood what the real risks were. That's why the jury did what it did."

Taser International has appealed the Turner decision.

The I-Team asked Rick Smith whether he believes Taser was causal in that death.

"Look, we look at that case and that is one case that certainly is one we're concerned about and that's one of the reasons that we do warn, trying to avoid chest shots," Smith said.

Dr. Zipes says it's tough to prove a Taser-caused a death because a dead body doesn't show the presence of electricity.

"I stumble on why did the sudden death occur exactly when the Taser shocks were going into the body. To say that that's not causily-related I think becomes ridiculous," Zipes said.

Smith questioned Dr. Zipes' motives.

"Maybe we shouldn't talk about a plaintiff's expert that's paid $1,200 an hour to testify against the technology," Smith said.

Dr. Zipes made the following recommendations: "I would argue that Taser number 1 should fess up to the fact that it can produce cardiac arrest, number 2 that law enforcement should be educated to this possibility and that they should not use the Taser weapon in a haphazard freewheeling fashion."

The I-Team asked Smith why Taser doesn't err on the side of caution and say in rare circumstances, in the chest a prolonged shot could increase the risk, and tell departments to make sure officers know this possibility exists and be ready to take medical action.

"We absolutely do that in our training, our warnings you can download them from our website," Smith said.

But when the I-Team checked Taser's website, we found the "Summary Conclusion: Do Taser ECD's affect the heart?" states: "There is no reliable published data that proves Taser ECD's negatively affect the heart."

The I-Team also asked Smith whether he recognizes

that in rare circumstances the Taser can affect the heart.

"There's no evidence that supports that it affects the heart in humans," Smith said. "There is evidence that it has happened in pigs."

Yet the I-Team found on Taser's liability release form, under "Known and Potential Side Effects," you'll see listed "heart rate, rhythm capture."

Amnesty International tracks deaths after Taserings. Their latest number: 466 deaths have followed Taserings since 2001. But Amnesty also says a number of these deaths have been attributed to other causes, and what 9 News is hearing from doctors and medical examiners is that it's hard to know definitively in a lot of these cases how much of a role the Taser may have played.

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