A Chicago medical
examiner has ruled that shocks from a Taser were responsible for the death of a man in
February, marking the first time that the electronic stun gun has been named as the
primary cause of death.
This is the latest challenge to Scottsdale-based Taser International's claim that its stun
guns have never caused a death or serious injury and comes a week after an Illinois police
department filed a class-action lawsuit claiming Taser misled law enforcement agencies
about the safety of its weapon.
The death is the 18th case in which a coroner has cited Taser as a factor in someone's
death and the fourth case where Taser has been named as a cause of death. But in all of
those, Taser was secondary to other factors such as drugs, heart conditions or mental
An autopsy report from the Cook County's Medical Examiner's Office attributed the death of
Ronald Hasse, 54, to electrocution from two Taser jolts delivered by a Chicago police
officer. The autopsy said methamphetamines contributed to Hasse's death.
Taser strongly criticized the Medical Examiner's Office in a statement Friday and said it
will challenge the autopsy.
"We believe that the scientific and medical community will publicly challenge this
conclusion based upon the lack of credible evidence," Taser spokesman Steve Tuttle
wrote in an e-mail on Friday. "Taser International will seek a judicial review of the
report and the basis for which those statements were made."
This is not the first time Taser has challenged a medical examiner. For years, Taser
officials publicly said the stun gun was never cited in an autopsy report. But an Arizona
Republic investigation last year revealed that Tasers have been cited repeatedly by
medical examiners in death cases and that Taser did not start collecting autopsy reports
until last April.
Taser officials later maintained that the medical examiners in those cases were wrong and
did not have the credentials or expertise necessary to examine deaths involving stun guns.
They now maintain that Tasers have never been cited by a medical examiner as "the
sole cause of death."
The Republic has identified 140 cases of death in the United States and Canada
following a police Taser shock since 1999. Of those, coroners said, Taser was a cause of
death in four cases and a contributing factor in 10 cases. In four other cases, medical
examiners said Taser could not be ruled out as a cause of death.
In his e-mail on Friday, Tuttle said Hasse's death should likely have been blamed on the
"We sincerely hope that a groundless opinion will not overshadow the medical and
scientific community's conclusions as to the lethal levels of methamphetamine use,"
he said in the statement. "Overlooking this as a primary cause of death contradicts
the very nature and purpose of these known lethal values."
Cook County Deputy Medical Examiner Scott Denton said that drugs alone would not have
caused Hasse's death. A five-second shock followed by a 57-second shock pushed Hasse
"over the edge," Denton told the Chicago Sun-Times.
"That's extraordinary," Denton said. "He became unresponsive and died after
Hasse, a former securities trader who was supposed to go on trial in June in the burial of
a body on an Indiana farm, confronted officers in a Chicago high-rise.
Police said they used the Taser on Hasse when he tried to kick and bite officers during a
struggle. He also threatened to infect paramedics with HIV.
After Hasse's death, Chicago police halted plans for a Taser expansion. Denton told the Sun-Times
that police should stop using Tasers on people who are acting psychotic or appear to
be under the influence of drugs.
Denton, who grew up in Scottsdale, did not return The Republic's calls for an
interview on Friday. According to a Web site for the Illinois Coroners and Medical
Examiners Association, Denton has worked at the Office of the Medical Examiner of Cook
County for nine years. He is also an assistant professor in the pathology department at
Rush University Medical Center. He got his medical degree from the University of Arizona.
Denton told the Sun-Times that he reviewed thousands of pages of information
provided by Taser. But he said his conclusion was also based on the findings of James
Ruggieri, an electrical engineer who in February made a presentation to the American
Academy of Forensic Sciences in which he said Taser shocks could cause cardiac arrest.
Ruggieri, who is a forensic engineer and has consulted with police departments and the
military on electrical accidents, said shocks from Taser could cause delayed ventricular
fibrillation, the irregular heartbeat characteristic of a heart attack. He also said that
multiple shocks from a Taser could cause someone to stop breathing and go into cardiac
arrest. He said that many deaths involving Tasers have likely been wrongly dismissed as
simple heart attacks or drug overdoses.
Taser has challenged Ruggieri's credentials and said its own medical and electrical
experts dispute his findings. Taser maintains that its guns have undergone dozens of tests
through universities and the Department of Defense, which support its claim of safety.
Tuttle said Friday that Denton should not have relied on "an unsubstantiated
theoretical position of electrical safety as presented by James Ruggieri."
Ruggieri said that he doesn't know Denton. He said the doctor contacted him once in
February to get a copy of his academy presentation. But Ruggieri said Friday that he is
not surprised by the medical examiner's conclusion.
"It was only a matter of time," he said. "All of the impartial people -
doctors, scientists, pathologists - took heed of this. They now have had facts to look at
when presented with death cases involving Taser."
Taser, in a June 28 training bulletin, advised police that "repeated, prolonged
and/or continuous exposures to the Taser may cause strong muscle contractions that may
impair breathing and respiration, particularly when the probes are placed across the chest
In training classes and instruction manuals, Taser has previously told police to use
repeated shocks to control a suspect.
The stun guns have been sold to more than 7,000 law enforcement agencies in the country
and are credited with reducing injuries and deaths to suspects and officers and lowering
the number of police shootings. But several law enforcement agencies, including the
department in Birmingham, Ala., and the Lucas County (Ohio) Sheriff's Office, have pulled
the guns from the street.
Last week, Dolton, Ill., filed a class-action lawsuit against Taser, becoming the first
police department to take legal action over what it described as Taser's exaggerated
claims of safety. The city said it paid $8,572 for stun guns that are too dangerous to use
on the street.
Taser stock, which soared last year, dropped by a third this year after the U.S.
Securities and Exchange Commission and the Arizona Attorney General's Office announced
separate inquiries into the company's claims of safety.
The price of Taser stock was down about 26 cents on Friday, to $9.72 per share.