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Jailhouse autopsy called out

Melissa Topey • Feb 9, 2014 at 3:54 AM

Dr. Cynthia Beisser has ruled “excited delirium” as a cause of death as many as 10 times in her 22 years as a Lucas County deputy coroner, and every time she did, it involved a person who died in police custody.

Dr. Michael Baden, a forensic pathologist, says the last time Beisser used the ruling she was dead wrong: Craig Burdine was a victim of homicide inside the Sandusky County jail, not a sudden death brought on by drugs or alcohol as Beisser ruled.

The injuries Burdine suffered to his neck were as fatal as “a bullet wound to the head,” according to Baden.

Craig Burdine died Aug. 11, 2007. The last images of him alive were captured on surveillance video from a sheriff’s cruiser inside the sally port at the jail. A dash cam video, which is damaged and lacks audio in portions, shows a non-responsive Burdine being carried into the jail by Fremont police officers and jail guards.

The officers dragged him from the deputy’s cruiser by his arms and legs, with Burdine facing up and his back parallel to the ground as they quickly move past the frame.

Craig Burdine was dead just minutes later.

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Jail guards and police officers on duty wrote reports stating Burdine, who had already suffered severe injuries to his head, back, arms and legs from an earlier altercation at a party and later during his arrest by Fremont police, had become combative after he was moved to a shower room inside the jail, where there is no video surveillance.

At no point in the cruiser’s dash cam video, from inside the jail’s sally port, can Burdine be seen as combative with the officers.

Justice delayed

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine launched a criminal investigation in August after Jess Burdine, Craig’s father, pressed DeWine for help. DeWine’s office said there was never a criminal investigation prior to the AG’s involvement. Dan Tierney, an AG spokesman, said it was being treated “like a cold case.”

Click here to watch an interview with Jess Burdine

It hasn’t been determined whether a grand jury will be impaneled, or where that might happen. Tierney also said the AG’s office is conducting a “thorough” investigation.

Beisser gave a deposition in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Burdine’s family. She testified she was not an expert on the topic of excited delirium, which is controversial and almost always associated with police custody or police contact deaths, according to a news article in the Miami Herald last year.

“The data supporting it is tenuous. I think excited delirium is often used as a catch-all to explain in-custody deaths,” Indiana University cardiologist Dr. Douglas Zipes told the newspaper.

Dr. Steven Karch, a cardiac pathologist in San Francisco, disagreed, according to the news article. Karch has extensively studied the syndrome and said most cases of excited delirium do not involve Taser stun guns, 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.”

A Taser weapon was used on Burdine at least three times in the moments before he died.

Baden said Burdine likely was already in severe medical distress when he arrived at the jail, before being Tasered.

Burdine doesn’t make any sound while inside the cruiser for the five-minute transport, and there are no calls ahead to the jail suggesting he was being combative, or any kind of problem. He is also unresponsive as officers and jail guards attempt to coax him from the vehicle once at the jail, but that’s when the audio portion of video goes dead.

After several minutes, several officers can be seen briefly on the video carrying Burdine by his arms and legs.

Official version falls short

During Beisser’s six-hour deposition, taken Nov. 10, 2010, she stated nobody dies from excited delirium.

“They die of whatever is triggering the delirium. Well, I should clarify that. If drugs are involved then the drugs would be the cause of death. There are some cases as we talked about that are not drug induced. Some people have underlying natural disease. Some people just die a sudden cardiac death of all the stimulation,” Beisser said.

Beisser noted the massive injuries Burdine suffered in her autopsy report, including a gash in his head, burns on his back, bruises and lacerations all over and shattered cartilage in his neck. She discounted the injuries, however, and said they were not the cause of Burdine’s death, or even contributing factors.

Beisser testified she relied entirely on the official version provided by police officers and jail guards in reports and statements in ruling Burdine’s death caused by excited delirium. She also said she was not sure where in the jail Burdine died.

Baden, deposed for the lawsuit on May 11, 2011, said Beisser was clearly wrong in her ruling and wrong to overlook the injuries Burdine suffered. The injuries killed him, according to Baden, who said Burdine was a victim of a homicide.

Burdine became cyanotic — his skin color turned a bluish-purple — because he was unable to breathe, Baden testified, due to the broken cartilage in his neck blocking his airway.

“That correlated with the autopsy findings of neck injuries, of neck compression,” Baden said.

Among all the trauma Burdine suffered — being maced in the eyes during his arrest, being physically restrained, the open wounds and the Tasers — his neck injury proved fatal.

“He had suffered fatal neck compression, strangulation, before the EMTs got there,” Baden said.

The alcohol and drug levels found in Burdine’s system also were were too low to bring about the condition described as excited delirium, he said. It is being used too widely to explain sudden death, Baden said, and it almost always involves law enforcement.

Beisser in haze

In a 2004 death at the Lucas County jail, Beisser also found no wrongdoing but was later forced to correct her autopsy report.

Carlton Benton, a 25-year-old Toledo man, died at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center in June after he was strangled by a deputy’s sleeper hold while at the Lucas County jail.

Beisser determined Benton died of a seizure disorder associated with the use of an antidepressant drug.

In a subsequent federal investigation, however, four witnesses came forward and testified they saw a jail guard put a choke hold on Benton and then saw Benton’s body go limp. Their statements weren’t included in the official reports provided by the sheriff’s office for Beisser back in 2004.

Beisser said her previous ruling was “nebulous” without that information.

That subsequent investigation determined the Lucas County sheriff and corrections officers gave false information about what happened to Benton.

In 2010 — six years after she ruled Benton died of natural causes — Beisser was forced to correct the death certificate to read “homicide.” 

Click here to read Beisser's deposition

Click here to read Baden's deposition

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