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September 09, 2004
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TASER Did Not Cause Death; Man Was Shocked by Officers During Scuffle While in Custody

By Lateef Mungin, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Five shocks to the chest with a Taser gun did not cause the death of a man injured in a scuffle with sheriff''s deputies, a medical examiner''s report concluded Wednesday.

Frederick Jerome Williams, 31, a Liberian native who lived in Lawrenceville, died of brain damage from a heart attack after the altercation in May, according to the final autopsy report in the case. But investigators at the Gwinnett County medical examiner''s office were not able to determine what caused Williams'' heart attack, according to the report.

"The cause of death is brain damage - lack of oxygen and/or blood to the brain - due to a heart attack of uncertain etiology [unknown reasons]," said Forensic Investigator Ted Bailey. "There is no evidence the Taser directly caused or contributed to his death."

Williams was the second Gwinnett inmate in eight months to die after being shocked with a stun gun in a scuffle with deputies. Members of Williams'' family were disappointed by the autopsy report, said Melvin Johnson, the family''s attorney.

"Four children ages 1 to 9 are left without a daddy and all they can say is they don''t know how he died," said Johnson. "Are we supposed to believe that a healthy 31-year-old black man who was athletic, who did not drink or do drugs, who had no history of heart problems, somehow died of a heart attack?"

Johnson said it is hard to believe Williams'' death "had nothing to do with him being hog-tied and shocked five times with a Taser and placed in a restraint chair."

Gwinnett Sheriff Butch Conway said he hoped the autopsy results would bring closure to the Williams family.

"I''m not at all surprised because of the duration of time that he fought with officers," he said of the findings. "I''ve looked into the Taser as deeply as I can and I don''t think it can cause death."

Conway said Williams fought "violently" for more than an hour and that such resistance could have strained his heart. He added he believes that the Taser is safe to use.

"It''s unfortunate, but the Taser is a good tool for the safety of law enforcement officers'' lives and to prevent injuries," he said.

Taser use attracted protests in Gwinnett County in the wake of the deaths of Williams and a second inmate who had been subdued by the 50,000-volt stun guns.

Within a nine-month period, five people in Georgia and 26 people nationally died after being shocked by Tasers, a number comparable to the previous 4 1/2 years the devices have been in use.

Those numbers got the attention of Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union, both of which questioned the safety and ethics of Taser use.

The gun''s manufacturer, Taser International of Scottsdale, Ariz., says autopsy results have shown that no deaths have been directly caused by a Taser.

On the night of the altercation, police were called to Williams''Lawrenceville home after a domestic violence complaint. Williams, who fought with police before his arrest, was charged with simple battery, obstruction and removing a baton from a police officer, according to police reports. At the jail, Williams again began to fight with sheriff''s deputies and was shocked with the stun gun and placed in a restraint chair. He lost consciousness and was rushed to Gwinnett Medical Center, where he died two days later.

Williams'' autopsy results were similar to those released after the death of inmate Ray Austin after a scuffle with deputies at the Gwinnett jail in September 2003.

Austin was shocked three times with a Taser, medicated with psychotropic drugs and restrained in a chair during the incident. Austin, who bit off part of a deputy''s ear, lost consciousness shortly afterward.

The medical examiner ruled that Austin died of a heart attack but could not determine what caused his heart failure.

In Williams case, the medical examiner did not find drugs in his system but reported finding bruising on his body and five burns on his chest attributed to the Taser gun.

District Attorney Danny Porter still has an open investigation into Williams'' death.

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