When George Floyd was being restrained by Minneapolis police, officer Thomas Lane said on video: “Roll him on his side?” “I just worry about the excited delirium or whatever.”
Mr. Floyd died several minutes later of restraint asphyxia as a result of being improperly restrained face down with an officer’s knee on his neck, and three officers putting their weight on his back. At Haddad & Sherwin LLP, we expect excited delirium to be claimed as the cause of death in the George Floyd case by defense attorneys. Excited delirium has been asserted as a defense in nearly all of our restraint asphyxia death cases.
The Myth of Excited Delirium Started with Pathologist Malpractice
In the 1980s in Miami, Florida nineteen Black women who were suspected prostitutes were found dead with small amounts of cocaine in their systems. Miami-Dade County Deputy Medical Examiner, Charles Wetli, MD, performed, or was involved in, the autopsies and determined all the women died of “excited delirium” from “sexual excitement” (servicing their clients) while on cocaine.
A short time later, 14-year-old Antoinette Burns was found dead but had no cocaine in her system. This prompted Wetli’s boss, Chief Medical Examiner Joseph Davis, to reexamine all of the excited delirium autopsies. Dr. Davis found obvious petechial hemorrhages, from asphyxiation, in all of the women’s eyes. He reclassified all of Wetli’s autopsies of these women as homicides. The women died at the hands of a serial killer. But Wetli’s pushing of “excited delirium” as the victims’ cause of death allowed the murderer to kill as many as 32 women before he was caught.
Despite the autopsy scandal, Wetli continued promoting excited delirium as a cause of death when people have stimulants in their systems. In 1990, he said that 70 percent of people who die of excited delirium are Black men and that “it may be genetic.” Wetli also co-authored a medical article claiming that six men and one woman died of excited delirium. However, all of them were restrained by police, and four were either hog-tied or put into a hobble restraint in a prone position. Both restraints are known to impair breathing.
Junk Science in Print Backed by Big Business
In 2005, forensic pathologist Vincent Di Maio, MD, and his wife published their book, Excited Delirium Syndrome. Based on Wetli’s theory, the book was dedicated all police and mental healthcare workers “wrongly accused” of misconduct when someone they restrain dies.
When deposed by Haddad & Sherwin LLP founding attorney Julia Sherwin in MH (Harrison) v. Alameda County, Northern District of California Case No. 3:11-cv-02868-JST, Di Maio admitted that he and his wife simply made up the term “Excited Delirium Syndrome.” He also revealed that TASER International bought 1,000 to 1,500 copies of his book to distribute to forensic pathologists.
TASER aimed to influence medical examiners and pathologists to conclude that people who died after being Tased died of “excited delirium,” and the TASER application did not contribute to their deaths.
TASER’s gift to forensic pathologists wasn’t cheap. A digital copy of Di Maio’s book currently costs $165, but only has about 130 pages of text.
Excited Delirium Not Recognized by the Medical Community
Proponents of excited delirium theory claim that a person in “excited delirium” is delirious, has psychomotor agitation, may engage in violence, displays superhuman strength, has a very high body temperature, and then dies. But there is no medical, psychological, or peer-reviewed research to support this assertion.
In the MH (Harrison) v. Alameda County case, Julia Sherwin also deposed Dr. Wetli in 2014. She further exposed the fraud associated with excited delirium by confirming these facts:
– Excited Delirium is not recognized by the American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, or the American Psychiatric Association.
– Excited Delirium had no International Classification of Diseases (ICD-9 or ICD-10) Code, which means it cannot be assigned as a diagnosis or as a cause of death for statistical purposes.
– Excited Delirium has never appeared in any version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the main diagnostic tool for mental health professionals in the United States.
– Excited Delirium Syndrome was not studied in any peer-reviewed journals.
At Haddad & Sherwin LLP, we know the excited delirium theory is junk science. Our attorneys have successfully debunked it in court, preserved the civil rights of our clients by winning cases, and spearheaded settlements with reforms to improve law enforcement policies and procedures, to protect the lives of others.