Police, DA silent on Taser death details

Police and prosecutors are refusing to reveal how many times 17-year-old Darryl Wayne Turner was shocked with a Taser gun before he died.

Prosecutors announced this week that Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Officer Jerry Dawson acted appropriately when he shocked Turner during a March confrontation at a north Charlotte grocery store. Prosecutors said only that Turner was shocked more than once after he advanced on the officer during a fight with store managers.

District Attorney Peter Gilchrist has refused to spell out how many times the teen was shocked, saying he does not release such details from investigative files to the public.

Police and prosecutors also have refused to make public a videotape that captured much of the confrontation at the Food Lion where Turner worked.

“We would like to have all of the information about what happened to Darryl,” his mother, Tammy Fontenot, said Thursday. “We definitely want to know the information about how the Taser was used. I think it is important that we know exactly how Darryl died.”

Turner family attorney Ken Harris has seen the video and disputes prosecutors' claim that the use of force was appropriate.

“Based on our review of the videotape evidence, we strongly disagree with any suggestion that Mr. Turner walked or advanced in an aggressive manner towards the officer prior to being tased,” Harris said.

Across the country, more than 275 people struck by stun guns died over six years ending last September, according to Amnesty International USA.

Studies suggest that multiple stun gun shocks might increase the risk of serious injury.

One study, by the N.C. Taser Safety Project, found that at least three of six people who died in North Carolina after being shocked in 2006 and 2007 had been shocked multiple times.

Stun gun deaths have prompted critics nationally to demand more study and stronger regulation of the weapons, now in use by thousands of law enforcement agencies. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed over the deaths. Last month, a federal jury held Taser International responsible for the death of a California man who was repeatedly shocked, awarding his family $6 million. The decision was the first time the company was held liable.

A Taser is a weapon that uses compressed nitrogen to shoot two tethered needle-like probes that penetrate skin and deliver an electric shock. It's designed to temporarily subdue a person, and typically delivers a 5-second shock.

Unlike some law-enforcement agencies, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police set no limit on the number of times officers can shock a suspect.

Officials say they encourage officers to minimize their use of force but leave it to them to decide what's necessary.

CMPD officers are taught to use Tasers when a person poses an imminent threat to himself, an officer or others.

The department arrests about 30,000 people each year and used Tasers about 100 times in both 2005 and 2006 . The most serious injuries during those years were cuts associated with falling after being shocked.

Turner died from cardiac arrest. An autopsy showed the teen's heart was pumping so fast and chaotically from the Taser shot and the stress of the confrontation that it stopped pumping blood properly.

Police Chief Rodney Monroe refused to describe the officer's use of force, saying it's a personnel issue still under a review.

Officer Dawson is scheduled to appear before a department review panel on Tuesday to evaluate whether he violated any policies.

Once the internal investigation is complete, Monroe said he will reveal more information about what happened.

Nothing in North Carolina's public records law prohibits police and prosecutors from disclosing details of criminal investigations, says Amanda Martin, general counsel to the N.C. Press Association.

Authorities can reveal how many times Turner was shocked, she said.

“This is information the public has a very legitimate interest in knowing,” Martin said. “Not knowing what the police officer did leaves the public at a complete loss to evaluate the propriety of the officer's actions.”

A June study by U.S. Department of Justice cautioned law enforcement agencies about repeatedly shocking suspects with stun guns. The study found that many of the deaths they reviewed are associated with repeated shocks.

Stun guns can be effective in reducing injuries to officers and suspects, the study found, and some situations may require multiple shocks to subdue suspects. But the medical risks associated with repeated shocks are unknown, the study warns.

The study urges agencies not to use stun guns whenever possible on small children, people with heart disease, the elderly and pregnant women.

The N.C. Taser Safety Project examined stun gun use by sheriffs' departments across the state and found that many have no policies limiting the number of shocks, or to protect particularly vulnerable groups.

“These are potentially harmful weapons that need to be regulated,” said Rebecca Headen, a member of the American Civil Liberties Union and co-author of N.C. study.

“We're not talking about a ban. But we'd like them to look at their policies and make sure they are doing what they can to protect the public.”