It’s Not That the Police Killed Him; He Just Happened To Die

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Most of the time, when a citizen dies needlessly at the hands of one of the state’s armed enforcers, we are told insistently — by both the agency that employed the assailant and the state-aligned media — that the officer “acted appropriately,” and that he “followed established procedures.”

Where the death was clearly a result of police violence, defenders of the state’s apparatus of regimentation take refuge in contrived ambiguity.

For instance: Whenever a young person dies after being subjected to electro-shock torture via Taser, the public is lectured about the lethal effects of  “excited delirium,” a mysterious condition that seems to afflict only those who are gang-tackled, tased, and otherwise abused by police. (While some medical examiners accept “excited delirium” as a valid cause of death, the condition is not widely recognized among medical professionals apart from those closely associated with law enforcement.)

Accordingly, when an overweight individual who may suffer from type-2 diabetes, cardiac disease, and similar conditions dies needlessly in police custody, we’re told that it wasn’t tasing, beating, and other mistreatment by police that killed him; it was either the sudden lethal expression of an underlying health problem, or a case of “excited delirium.”

The “excited delirium” rationale can also be applied when police kill innocent, non-violent people who are taking prescription drugs for bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, and similar conditions.

Thus when police in southern Utah murdered 32-year-old Brian Cardall near Hurricane last month, practically the first words to fall from the mouth of one of the assailants was that Cardall was killed by “excited delirium” — not by the repeated Taser strikes used to subdue the husband and father during a psychotic episode.

A different but related approach to police self-justification was displayed in the recent death of 42-year-old Donel Stogner of Walker, Louisiana. Stogner was pulled over, apparently for a traffic violation, by Livingston County Deputy Sheriff Chris Sturdivant. During the stop, the deputy noticed something in Stogner’s right hand; when Stogner refuses to open the hand, Sturdivant grabbed him and tried to pry it open.

A struggle ensued in which — as documented by the deputy’s dash-cam video — Stogner appeared to put something in his mouth. This prompted Sturdivant, a wiry, athletic male, to climb the larger man’s back, wrap an arm around his throat, and throw him to the ground, where the two grappled for nearly five minutes.

During the scuffle, Sturdivant can be heard repeatedly ordering Stogner to “spit it out”; Stogner, for his part, can be heard groaning and laboring for breath — the latter being a result not only of exertion, but of a naked chokehold being used, somewhat inefficiently, by the deputy.

At one point, Stogner apparently knocked a can of pepper spray from Sturdivant’s hands. The struggle continued until a second officer arrived and pitched in.

Stogner wasn’t breathing by the time his protectors were finished serving him, and he was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.

The preliminary finding by the local medical examiner, Dr. Ron Coe, was  that there were “many factors in Stogner’s death.” The middle-aged, overweight man was a methamphetamine user (he had been arrested on drug charges several times, including an arrest just days before he died). He suffered cardiac arrhythmia, severe atherosclerosis, and had an enlarged heart — all of which reflected a poor diet and unhealthy lifestyle, and would probably have killed him eventually.

Almost by way of afterthought, Dr. Coe pointed out that Stogner also had a broken hyoid bone — a U-shaped bone located at the base of the tongue, right where the deputy had been applying a chokehold for several minutes. This indicates that there was “some force applied to this region” by Sturdivant, Coe admitted, before insisting that any of the aforementioned conditions could have resulted in Stogner’s death.

No, it’s not the Taser, the club, the chokehold, or the gang-beating that kills a non-violent offender; the recipient of state-inflicted violence simply chose that precise instant to have a heart attack. There’s nothing the see here; just move along.

8:45 am on July 13, 2009
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