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Taser to blame in heart failures

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Taser possible factor in deaths, doctor says

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 09/03/05

Gwinnett's chief medical examiner has determined that multiple shocks from a Taser could have contributed to the deaths of two Gwinnett inmates.

Dr. Steven Dunton's reports, released Friday, were issued in response to federal authorities who asked him to review the autopsies of two prisoners who suffered heart attacks after Taser shockings. In a related development, two Chicago doctors say in a letter written this week to a prestigious medical journal that the Taser is to blame for the heart failure of a 14-year-old boy.

The two findings add more fuel to arguments that the Taser, used by thousands of law enforcement agencies, may not be the ideal nonlethal police protector that its defenders say it is.

Despite acknowledging that the Taser could have played a role in the deaths of Gwinnett jail inmates Ray Charles Austin and Frederick Williams, however, Dunton declined to reverse his earlier rulings that he could not determine whether the Taser caused their deaths.

In both cases, Dunton's original ruling that the cause of death was undetermined stands.

Dunton said he will refer the autopsies of both men to a new Taser-related death study being conducted by the National Association of Medical Examiners. "We just don't know enough about the effects of Tasers to the body," Dunton said in an interview Friday.

The Taser, a 50,000-volt stun gun marketed as a nonlethal weapon, is used by about 7,000 domestic law enforcement agencies, including 217 in Georgia, according to Taser International, its manufacturer. Amnesty International and civil-rights groups say more than 130 people have died after being shocked.

The Arizona-based company has staunchly defended its weapons, stating that the guns have been used safely by law enforcement officers more than 100,000 times. Taser officials also have presented studies that they say proves the weapon lacks the power to cause ventricular fibrillation a potentially fatal heart condition.

Two Chicago cardiologists challenged that claim in a letter published this week in The New England Journal of Medicine. The Taser triggered ventricular fibrillation in a 14-year-old boy who suffered a heart attack last year in Chicago, said Dr. Wayne H. Franklin, a pediatric electrophysiologist at Children's Memorial hospital and one of the authors of the letter.

The teen was struck multiple times with a Taser after causing a disturbance at a juvenile facility, authorities said. He suffered a heart attack but received immediate medical attention and survived after being revived by a defibrillator.

The doctors said they believe all police officers should carry defibrillators when they use Tasers because of the possibility of ventricular fibrillation.

"I know Taser International does not want their weapons associated with VF," said Franklin in an interview. "But it is. It happened in this case. And you can look at all the other cases across the country. The more the company denies that it is associated with VF, the more people will die."

Taser officials responded to the letter by forwarding an e-mail message from Dr. Richard M. Luceri, director of the Arrhythmia Center at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "Unfortunately, neither previous media reports on this incident nor this recent non-peer reviewed letter to the editor offers any scientific evidence of a causal relationship between the use of a Taser device and ventricular fibrillation," Luceri wrote. " The conclusion implied by the authors is purely speculative and not backed by scientific evidence."

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