Burning Questions in Texas Architect's Death
Fort Worth police still haven’t released the final report in a Midland man’s death.
By Peter Gorman <email@example.com>
Fort Worth Weekly (Texas)
November 16, 2005
Kathi Hammock wants to know why police went after her husband.
Kathi Hammock wants closure. It’s been more than seven months since her husband Eric died in the custody of the Fort Worth Police Department, and she still doesn’t know why it happened.
Police said more than a month ago that they would release the final report on the incident. They haven’t. Departmental lawyers said the failure to release the information was due to pending lawsuits against the department. There are none. Police now say they will release the information as soon as their lawyers decide what can be made public.
Kathi sees no reason any of it should be kept secret. A Tarrant County grand jury has already exonerated the primary officer involved in her husband’s death, and the time period when the officer could have received departmental discipline has passed. Kathi and her daughter have not even received Eric’s personal effects yet. “I just want to know what happened,” she said.
Whatever the eventual police report may show, Hammock’s death seems a pointless one — except that it is helping point up the reasons for the growing controversy over police use of Tasers, electronic “stun guns” that have been implicated as the cause of numerous severe injuries and a suspected contributing cause in many of the 150-plus deaths that have occurred following Taser use in the last four years.
Like many of the other Taser-related deaths, Hammock’s involved no major crime. He died after refusing an officer’s order to stop his car and trying to fight the officer. Why did the officer chase him? He’d briefly trespassed on a garbage truck parking lot.
On Monday night, April 3, 2005, Hammock, a successful 43-year-old architect and homebuilder from Midland — and an occasional cocaine user — was driving west on Interstate 30, on his way home from a weekend visit to his half-sister in Louisiana. He’d stopped for dinner in Dallas, then called his wife to tell her he’d helped change a stranger’s tire between Dallas and Fort Worth. The next thing she heard was that he was dead.
The initial police report said that he’d gotten off at the Riverside Drive North exit, followed that for half a mile, then turned into an open gate at a Waste Management facility garbage truck depot. Fort Worth Police Officer C.P. Birley — off duty but in uniform — was moonlighting there and told him the facility was not open to the public. Hammock entered anyway, then turned around and left within a couple of minutes. As he was leaving, he was ordered by Birley to stop. When he didn’t, the officer gave chase in his own car after calling for backup.
Minutes later the cars were abandoned, and the chase continued on foot. When Birley finally caught up with Hammock, he claimed Hammock tried to throw a punch. Birley responded by shooting him with his Taser, a weapon that puts out 50,000 volts via two wires, at the end of which are affixed what look like fishhooks. In the next several minutes Hammock, who had no prior police record, was jolted with both Birley’s and another officer’s Tasers at least 17 times, according to police sources. He died shortly thereafter. According to a police department official who asked not to be named, no drugs were found in his car.
But like many of the other Taser-related deaths in this country, Hammock’s death did involve drugs. Tarrant County Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani ruled that the death was due to an accidental cocaine overdose.
However, experts at two other medical examiner’s offices, in Dallas and Miami, told Fort Worth Weekly it’s highly unlikely that the amount of cocaine Hammock had in his system, by itself, could have caused his death.
Peerwani declined to speak directly to the Weekly for this story. But through an assistant, he reaffirmed his conclusion about the death: Hammock, Peerwani said, would have died from cocaine even if he had not been repeatedly shocked while in a state of intense agitation over the chase and the fight. “He was a walking dead man,” the assistant said. “He would have died in two minutes even if he’d stayed on the highway.” Peerwani, the assistant said, also confirmed a similar conclusion in an earlier Taser death.
Hammock was one of three people in Fort Worth in an eight-month period who died after having been shocked by Tasers. In all of them, Peerwani ruled that the primary cause of death was drugs. In November 2004, Robert Guerrero — who had a minute amount of cocaine in his system — died after being jolted by four Taser blasts, one of which lasted 10 seconds, twice the normal length, when police caught him trying to illegally reconnect a neighbor’s electricity. In June of this year, Carolyn Daniels, a prostitute, died 90 minutes after being shocked twice by Tasers while being arrested for possession of a crack pipe.
In light of the three recent deaths, Peerwani told reporters last fall that he would like to see more studies of the effect that Tasers have on people who are high on drugs, agitated, or suffering from heart problems. In the meantime, he’s sticking by his rulings in those cases — which will make it much more difficult for Kathi Hammock and her daughter to win the lawsuit they filed against TASER International in July.
TASER International has always insisted that their weapons have never caused a death. In recent months, however, medical examiners in several cities have begun to question whether Tasers may have played a part in the deaths of those who also had drugs in their systems when they were jolted.
And in January, 2005, in response to an Amnesty International report that indicated that several coroners had listed Taser shocks as a secondary or tertiary cause of death in more than a dozen in-custody incidents, the Securities and Exchange Commission began an investigation into the advertising practices of the company that billed its products as “non-lethal” and claims to have several studies to prove that.
In late July, Cook County Medical Examiner Scott Denton ruled that 54-year-old Ronald Hasse died last February as the result of electrocution from two Taser jolts, one of them lasting 57 seconds. Denton noted that methamphetamines found in Hasse’s system contributed to his death but that the drugs alone would not have caused it. And just two weeks ago in South Carolina, Lancaster County M.E. Mike Morris released an autopsy in which pathologist Amy T. Sheil ruled that the July 23 death of Maury Cunningham at the county jail was the result of “cardiac arrhythmia as a result of an electrical shock by a Taser weapon.” Cunningham had attacked two guards and was subsequently jolted with Tasers six times, the longest of which lasted 2 minutes and 49 seconds.
TASER International has said it plans to challenge the findings in both cases, but the mounting criticism is having some effects. The company recently began calling its products “conducted energy devices” (CED’s) and labeling them as “less-lethal” rather than “non-lethal” weapons. And company stock prices have dropped from more than $33 per share last December to just over $7 currently.
The company has also changed its product label to add a new warning: “The stress and exertion of extensive repeated, prolonged, or continuous application(s) of the TASER device may contribute to cumulative exhaustion, stress, and associated medical risk(s). Severe exhaustion and/or over-exertion from physical struggle, drug intoxication, use of restraint devices, etc. may result in serious injury or death.”
Some of the problems that have been described in the press during the past year regarding Taser devices — particularly in Eric Hammock’s death — might have been avoided had TASER issued the warning earlier.
“It’s very difficult to get a coroner to rule that a Taser, or anything else in the hands of a police officer, killed a suspect,” said Randall Kallinen, president of the Houston chapter of the Texas ACLU. “That coroner frequently has to answer to those police departments. At the least, the coroner’s office will be encouraged not to find the police responsible because of the potential liability the city or county would have. So to have two coroners blame the police directly — with the vehicle of death being the Tasers — is extraordinary.
“The thing to remember,” Kallinen continued, “is that Taser studies have been, and are being, done on the American public. There haven’t really been any other studies. And now we know they sometimes kill. We still don’t know what other damage they do that might not appear until later, to the heart, the liver, the kidneys.”
The ACLU is calling for a moratorium on the use of Tasers until human studies have been made.
TASER International, while denying its products are responsible for any deaths, this month announced a new feature on its weapons. A Taser can now be fitted with an optional video and sound recording device that will begin to run the moment the weapon is turned on, even if it is not being used. The recorders will aim in the direction of the weapon’s barrel and can function for up to an hour at a time. The data can later be downloaded directly onto a computer.
For Kathi Hammock, much of this is too little, too late. “I’m trying to get past it, but it’s difficult,” she told the Weekly. “After all these months I still have never been told what it was that my husband did that made that officer decide to chase him. And for my husband to need to be shot with Tasers so many times — what had he done? Why isn’t anyone telling me? Why won’t they even let me have his clothes?”
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