A young graffiti artist shot by a Miami Beach police Taser stun gun died of heart failure from the “energy device discharge,” authorities said Thursday.
But the six-month-long medical examination concluded that the “sudden cardiac death” of Israel “Reefa” Hernandez-Llach, 18, was accidental.
The Miami-Dade medical examiner’s office informed prosecutors of the findings on Thursday, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said.
Hernandez-Llach’s death drew international headlines, sparked rallies accusing Miami Beach police of heavy-handed tactics and reignited debate over law enforcement’s use of stun guns.
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Israel Hernandez, the father of the teen, said Thursday night that the ruling was not a surprise.
“We’ve been saying it for seven months. It’s nothing new,” said the elder Hernandez, who has called for police to stop using Tasers. “My son didn’t deserve the death penalty.”
The autopsy report by associate medical examiner Dr. Mark Shuman has yet to be finalized and turned over to police and the state attorney’s office. Miami-Dade prosecutors must now conclude whether police broke any laws.
“We’re all parents, and our hearts go out to his family and all of his friends,” Fernandez Rundle said. “We understand everyone is waiting for our final conclusion, and we will do it as quickly as humanly possible, without compromising, of course.”
On Aug. 6, a Miami Beach police officer caught Hernandez-Llach spray-painting a shuttered McDonald’s on North Beach. After a foot chase, Officer Jorge Mercado shot the local street artist with his department-issued Taser. The teen later died at Mount Sinai Medical Center.
Miami Beach police have insisted that Mercado, who saw the teen rushing toward him, acted according to department policy in dealing with someone who was resisting arrest.
Hernandez-Llach’s relatives have filed legal notice that they intend to sue the Miami Beach Police Department on a claim of excessive force.
Todd McPharlin, the family’s lawyer, said the medical report supported their criticism of police.
“Our reaction is that these officers used what turned out to be deadly force for what everybody understands was a minor property offense,” he said.
The medical examiner’s finding was unusual because a Taser, commonly used by police, has never been cited in an official cause of a death report in Florida.
Most local Taser-related deaths have been ruled as cases of “excited delirium,” a rare brain malfunction — often fueled by cocaine or mental illness — that researchers say morphs victims into raging, violent, feverish attackers who often encounter police while in public spaces.
Not all excited delirium deaths involved Tasers. But critics contend that authorities use excited delirium to explain away deaths caused by over-aggressive police tactics.
In Hernandez-Llach’s case, medical investigators — who conducted a battery of toxicology exams and tests at the University of Miami’s Brain Bank — explored the possibility of excited delirium.
Hernandez-Llach’s body temperature was well over 102 degrees more than an hour after he was pronounced dead, which can be a sign of delirium, according to law enforcement sources. But the teen did not appear enraged during his encounter with cops — and his toxicology did not detect any known drugs other than marijuana.
Nationally, it is rare for medical examiners to list a stun gun as contributing to a death. Miami-Dade’s medical examiner did not cite the Taser brand, listing it only as a “conducted electronic device discharge.”
Arizona-based Taser International has been aggressive in suing medical examiners that do cite the brand. In Ohio, the company in 2008 persuaded a judge to remove the stun gun as a cause of death in three cases. The company maintains that the device provides a valuable, less-than-lethal option for restraining suspects.
However, in 2009 the company suggested officers try to avoid shooting suspects in the chest, as was done in Hernandez-Llach’s case, because of the risk of cardiac arrest in some people. In 2012, in a small study published in an American Heart Association publication, a cardiologist found that the weapon can cause heart failure in some healthy people.
A spokesman for Taser International, Steve Tuttle, had this to say on Thursday:
“TASER International is always concerned when a death tragically occurs in custody and mourns the loss of a life. We do not comment, however, on an unfortunate death without having been provided any factual documentation by the medical examiner or the opportunity to review the autopsy report.”
The scrutiny on the weapon is bound to increase in South Florida. Three times since Feb. 5, Miami-Dade men zapped by police Tasers have died.
The first instance took place in Liberty City on Feb. 5. Willie Sams, 21, got into an altercation with Miami-Dade police who fired a Taser at him as he tried to flee. Sams was pronounced dead a few hours later at North Shore Medical Center. His mother said he was in town visiting his grandmother and father.
Two men died on Feb. 27.
When Miami-Dade police arrived at a South Miami-Dade home they found an agitated Maykel Antonio Barrera, 37, who tried to slam the door on them. They held it open, and Barrera somehow ran out, police said.
They chased him and shot him with a Taser. He, too, died a few hours later at an area hospital.
That same day, Hialeah police said, they were called to a home because Treon Johnson, 27, was beating a dog. They found him tossing coconuts at a dog from the roof of a home, and zapped him with a Taser to subdue him. He was pronounced dead a few hours later.
Last September, there was another high-profile Taser death. Norman Oosterbroek, a 280-pound former bodyguard for Lady Gaga, died after Pinecrest police used a Taser on him as he gobbled drugs.