Former La. cop arraigned in TASER death
By Michael Kunzelman
NEW ORLEANS — A former police officer accused of repeatedly jolting a handcuffed man with a Taser before he died pleaded not guilty Thursday to a manslaughter charge.
Scott Nugent, 21, also pleaded not guilty to a charge of malfeasance in office during his arraignment in court. The former Winnfield police officer was freed on $45,000 bond last week after a grand jury indicted him on both charges in connection with the death of Baron Pikes, 21.
Nugent faces up to 45 years in prison if convicted of the charges. Fired in May, he is appealing his dismissal.
Nugent allegedly shocked Pikes nine times with a 50,000-volt Taser while arresting the handcuffed man on a drug possession warrant Jan. 17, according to authorities.
Winn Parish coroner Randolph Williams ruled Pikes' death was a homicide.
George Higgins, one of Nugent's attorneys, called it "nonsense" for the coroner to conclude that the Taser jolts caused Pikes' death.
"It's not supported by science," Higgins said in a telephone interview after the arraignment.
A study released in June by the National Institute of Justice didn't find any "conclusive medical evidence" that exposure to so-called conducted energy devices, including Tasers, carries a high risk of serious injury or death.
Taser International Inc. spokesman Steve Tuttle said he couldn't discuss the Winnfield case because it involves an "ongoing legal matter."
"However, it should be noted that there are facts in this case that are disputed, including the findings of the medical examiner, and urge that judgment be withheld until the legal proceedings are complete," Tuttle said in a statement.
Taser International says it has sold more than 365,000 of its devices to more than 13,000 law enforcement agencies.
Amnesty International has identified 332 cases in the U.S. since 2001 in which people died after police struck them with a Taser, Amnesty researcher Angela Wright said Thursday.
Autopsy reports in more than 40 of those cases cited the Taser as a contributing factor in the death, but medical examiners usually attributed the cause of death to other factors, such as drug intoxication, Wright said.
"It's very rare that officers are charged" with a crime in connection with a Taser death, she added.
Nugent is scheduled to return to court Oct. 23 for a hearing on motions in the case. A tentative date for his jury trial is also expected to be set then, authorities said.
Last week, the mother of Pikes' 4-year-old son filed a wrongful death suit in federal court against city officials, Nugent and Taser International.
Taser International says it has a nearly perfect record in product liability lawsuits, with all but one of those 73 cases resulting in a dismissal or a verdict favoring the Scottsdale, Ariz.-based company.
In June, a federal jury in San Jose, Calif., held Taser International partially liable for the death of a man who had a Taser used on him during an arrest. The company was ordered to pay $1 million in compensatory damages and $5.2 million in punitive damages.
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