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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Today we have the second part of our series on excited delirium. That's a term more and more medical examiners are using to explain why people die suddenly in police custody. Civil liberties groups fear the diagnosis is being used to cover up police abuse and to protect companies like Taser International from lawsuits.

Here's NPR's Laura Sullivan.

LAURA SULLIVAN: There's a lot of debate over whether excited delirium is real. But to Senior Corporal Herb Cotner of the Dallas Police Department there's no Question. It is.

Corporal HERB COTNER (Dallas Police Department): This is when you have someone doing push-ups with two 150-pound officers on their back.

SULLIVAN: Corporal Cotner says he had to subdue one man who smashed through a plate glass window, broke his leg several times, and still walked two blocks to fight with police.

Cpl. COTNER: These fights leave us exhausted. There is no one thing that simply describes this. It's a totality of characteristics that you can't explain.

SULLIVAN: One minute, Cotner says, a person is fighting and screaming; the next minute, he's dead.

Cotner trains officers to give the person space, to try to calm them - unless they pose a danger to someone else. Then they have to fight. And in a growing number of cases, police officers end up reaching for their Tasers. And that's where the debate over excited delirium gets a lot more complicated.

Taser International says its products help police deal with people suspected of having excited delirium. A spokesman told NPR it could be the only way to subdue a person fast enough to get medical attention.

But according to civil-liberties groups and legal filings, Taser may have financial reasons to support and even encourage the use of the excited delirium diagnosis.

Take the case of Frederick Williams.

(Soundbite of police video)

Mr. FREDERICK WILLIAMS: Don't kill me, man. Don't kill me. (Unintelligible).

SULLIVAN: On a grainy video, Williams is screaming, Don't kill me! I have a family to support. I've calmed down, as several officers carry him into the Gwinnett County Detention Center in a suburb of Atlanta. One officer takes out his Taser and fires it directly onto his chest.

(Soundbite of police video)

Unidentified Man: Relax. Relax.

SULLIVAN: The shock jerks Williams' chest upward.

(Soundbite of police video)

Unidentified Man: Stop resisting.

SULLIVAN: He Tasers Williams six times. A few minutes later, they realize Williams isn't breathing. Williams died a few hours later. His family is now suing the county and Taser. The company has made it clear in proceedings so far they intend to argue Williams died of excited delirium, not because of the Taser or excessive force. The medical examiner could not determine the exact cause of death.

Williams, a deacon in his church and father of four, had no drugs or alcohol in his system.

Excited delirium has helped Taser International in the past. The company has successfully defended itself against at least eight lawsuits in recent years, arguing that excited delirium caused the death, not the Taser.

Taser International spokesman Steve Tuttle acknowledges that Taser sends hundreds of pamphlets each year to medical examiners, which he says explain how to detect excited delirium. And Taser also holds seminars across the country, which hundreds of law enforcement officials attend. But Tuttle says they are only providing information that has been vetted by researchers.

Mr. STEVE TUTTLE (Spokesman, Taser International): We're not telling departments excited delirium is always the cause of death following a Taser application. We're simply pointing out the facts in which excited delirium is an issue out there and that they need to treat this as a medical emergency if they see these signs.

SULLIVAN: Taser is also reaching out to the medical community.

Mr. JOHN PETERS (President, Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Deaths): We specialize in training law enforcement officers, medical examiners, forensic investigators and coroners about sudden death and excited delirium.

SULLIVAN: John Peters is president of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Deaths in Henderson, Nevada, a prominent consulting company.

Peters is also one of Taser International's star witnesses against claims that the weapon kills people. Peters and his staff were also paid by Taser for a year and a half to instruct at the company's training academy.

If you guys are training law enforcement to embrace excited delirium, does that make it hard to do that without it affecting your credibility?

Mr. PETERS: Well, obviously going down to the Taser Academy and teaching, certainly some people would say, well, you know, you're obviously on their side. But the Taser is just one piece of this. I'm not a Taser instructor. I don't hold stock in Taser. So we try to maintain a distance and a separation.

SULLIVAN: Eric Balaban is a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. ERIC BALABAN (Staff Attorney, American Civil Liberties Union): We have major concerns that it's being used as a means to divert attention away from these violent altercations.

SULLIVAN: Balaban says the fear is not just that excited delirium may not exist, but that it is already being overused in lawsuits and on the streets.

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

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