Naked, hollering and foaming at the mouth, chronic cocaine-abuser Luiz Antunes Goncalves collapsed on a Miami Beach street. Declared dead at a nearby hospital, his body temperature measured at 107 degrees.
Samuel Mason, an abuser of pain killers, began banging his head against walls as he was being booked into a South Miami-Dade prison. It took three officers to restrain him before he stopped breathing and died.
Another drug abuser, Camilo Guzman, 28, shed his clothes and climbed the roof of a North Miami nursing home before attacking officers. One shot him with a Taser stun gun. Guzman soon died.
The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office classified each man’s recent death as “excited delirium syndrome,” a rare brain malfunction — often fueled by cocaine or mental illness — that researchers say morphs victims into raging, violent, feverish attackers.
First documented in Miami during the cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, the syndrome isn’t well known to the public but has increasingly been recognized by doctors, medical examiners and law enforcement across the country.
But citing it as a cause of death is raising controversy. Most of the deaths involve police action. Some victims have died after being restrained by officers, or in some high-profile cases, shot with Taser stun guns. Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and relatives of the dead question the autopsy findings, contending the syndrome is built on shaky medical research as a way to cover for overaggressive police tactics.
“The data supporting it is tenuous. I think excited delirium is often used as a catch-all to explain in-custody deaths,” said Indiana University cardiologist Dr. Douglas Zipes, who testifies on behalf of clients suing Taser International.
Not so, said Dr. Steven Karch, a San Francisco cardiac pathologist who has extensively studied the syndrome. He said most cases of lethal excited delirium do not involve Taser stun guns at all, and usually involve police because of the violent outbursts by sufferers.
“It’s utterly real. It’s a not a made-up disease at all,” Karch said. “It is a first-class medical emergency.”
Indeed, 29 people in Miami-Dade alone have been found to have died because of excited delirium since 2002, according to records from the Medical Examiner’s Office. Of those, only nine had been shot by Taser stun guns. An additional two others, also hit by the Taser stun guns, were found to have died from a similar contributing cause — cocaine intoxication or “psychosis.”
The Medical Examiner’s Office has yet to issue rulings in two other highly publicized deaths involving confrontations with Taser-wielding police.
In a case that drew outrage from supporters, teenage graffiti artist Israel Hernandez died in August after Miami Beach police chased him on foot after he was spotted spray-painting a vacant building, then shot him with a Taser stun gun. The next month, Norman Oosterbroek — naked, striking a neighbor at a Pinecrest mansion and apparently ingesting some sort of drug — was subdued by a police Taser shot, then died.
Both men had body temperatures well over 102 degrees over an hour after they were pronounced dead, according to multiple law enforcement sources. An overheated body is common among people who have been ruled as having died of excited delirium.