None of the officials involved in Vermont’s first taser death can explain why it’s almost three months since a Vermont State trooper tasered Macadam Mason, a 39-year-old epileptic artist who died almost immediately, and there’s still no completed autopsy report.
The same officials in two states, Vermont and New Hampshire, also failed to reveal last June that Taser International, the taser manufacturer, almost immediately intervened in the investigation, submitting guidance and background information for the Vermont State Police and the NH medical examiner’s office that was in the midst of performing Mason’s autopsy. That was June 21 and Taser’s involvement remained unknown to the public until reported September 9 by the Burlington Free Press.
Taser’s covert intervention into Mason’s taser-related death is part of apparently long-standing policy on the company’s part to intervene as early as possible to protect the Taser brand from bad publicity. With some 500 taser-related American deaths since 2001, Taser has already changed its characterization of its 50,000 volt stun gun from “non-lethal” to “less lethal.”
Taser’s approach to taser deaths is to challenge anyone suggesting that taser was in any way to blame. Last July when OpEdNews.com ran a story headlined, “Taser Death In Vermont: Trooper Zaps Unarmed Epileptic Artist,” Stacey Todd of Taser International posted a comment asserting that: “It’s premature to describe Mr. Mason’s death as a ‘Taser death.’ To simply infer that the use of one police tool may be to be to blame for this man’s death is irresponsible as there are no facts to support that causal relationship.”
All reports of the event of June 20 are consistent, relating that when trooper David Schaeffer shot his taser at Macadam Mason, Mason dropped to the ground and never regained consciousness. He was taken to a hospital in NH where he was pronounced dead.
When asked, “do you think Mason would be dead even if no taser was used,” the Taser International spokesperson did not answer the question. Instead, Stacey Todd wrote that: “Until a medical expert, coroner or medical examiner, determines a cause of death it’s speculation to state that the Taser device caused Mr. Mason’s death.”
In fact, in three different cases in Ohio in 2005-06, when the Chief Medical examiner’s office in Summit County, Ohio, made exactly that determination, Taser International took the county to court. After a four-day trial in 2008, Ohio Judge Ted Schneiderman found for Taser on every item in the company’s complaint, as well as some items it had not requested, and ordered the medical examiner to re-write three separate death certificates.
The judge’s 13-page decision in May 2008 described three events that unambiguously included tasers and fatalities, as well other factors like extreme drug use, a badly slashed wrist, serious mental impairment, and obesity. These descriptions alone raise doubts about the taser use directly causing any of the three deaths, but tasers were indeed deployed just a matter of minutes before each of three men died, belying the judge’s conclusion that: “The Taser device had nothing to do with their deaths.”
In Arizona, where Taser International is based in Scottsdale, the Arizona Republic newspaper of Phoenix covered the decision in a story that starts: “Taser International has fired a warning shot at medical examiners across the country. The Scottsdale-based stun gun manufacturer increasingly is targeting state and county medical examiners with lawsuits and lobbying efforts to reverse and prevent medical rulings that Tasers contributed to someone's death.”
The medical examiner appealed the decision on seven separate issues, getting upheld on one and denied on the rest. In April 2009, the three-judge appeals court denied the medical examiner’s constitutional due process argument on the ground that it had not been raised in the original trial. The appeals court also reversed the trial judge for granting Taser items it had not requested.
In a pointed dissent, Judge Donna J. Carr argued that Taser International had no basis for bringing the suit in the first place “because it has not suffered an actual injury and because the interests it seeks to protect do not fall within the zone of interest to be protected by the statute.” The statute in question is concerned with preserving the integrity and finality of cause-of-death determinations.
Judge Carr went on to say that the cases the majority cited to support its position “involved persons with direct interests in the cause of death of the decedent, such as persons accused in the death, not corporations seeking to make a preemptive strike to preclude lawsuits from being filed against it.”
In Ohio, at least, “the controversy of medical examiners and Taser-related deaths” continued to make news in 2012 when WCPO-TV in Cincinnati looked into the taser-related death of a teenager that was ruled “unknown/undetermined” after he was tasered by a police officer. That ruling was challenged by the family’s attorney who said, “He's a very clean and upstanding kid, very healthy kid...and the only thing that happened that night is he was tased and then he died and she's saying this doesn't matter, the Taser doesn't matter...I don't think so.”
WCPO also reported on a 2003 study by the Dept. of Defense that discussed the difficulty of assessing tasers as a cause-of-death, since electric shock leaves no tracks. Without direct evidence, medical examiners must rely on inference to assess the elements of a death, the same inferences that seemed so obvious to the Summit County medical examiner until Taser took her to court.
Asked if she had an opinion of the courts’ rulings, medical examiner Dr. Lisa J. Kohler said, “Yes.” She did not elaborate except to say, “I respectfully disagree with the original ruling. The death certificates reflect that disagreement in that they are unsigned.”
Whether any of these events have anything to do with the delay in Vermont getting Macadam Mason’s autopsy report from NH is anyone’s guess. Taser International has contacted at least some of the officials involved. The Vermont Attorney General’s office and the Vermont State Police won’t comment. The NH Medical Examiner’s office says that Taser hasn’t influenced them. The NH Attorney General’s office refers inquiries to the Vermont Attorney General and other NH officials refers autopsy questions to the Vermont State Police. The Vermont State Police won’t comment beyond saying that, when it gets the autopsy report, it will forward copies to the Attorney General and to the Orange County State’s Attorney Office, which has primary jurisdiction, since Mason died in Thetford in Orange County.