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NAACP questions Taser use in county jail

POSTED September 25, 2009 11:24 p.m.
Days after a third inmate at the Stanislaus County Jail died, the NAACP filed a complaint with the Department of Justice and called for a federal probe to look into the deaths. Also, the coroner’s office released the cause of death for an inmate who died in August.
The Modesto/Stanislaus chapter of the NAACP is calling for a federal investigation into the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department’s use of Tasers, specifically in relation to the three deaths that have occurred at the county jail in the last five months. Only two of the inmate deaths were shot with a Taser while in the custody of the sheriff’s department. The third was hit with a Taser by the Modesto Police Department during his arrest and died later while in custody at the jail.
“There is a need for an independent investigation of a higher authority with subpoena powers in order to get to the bottom of why so many people are dying while in police custody,” said Wendy Byrd, president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “A due process should take place to hold offenders accountable, but it shouldn’t result in a death sentence before even making it to trial.”
Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson said he welcomes any outside investigation.
The three deaths are being looked at as an internal investigation within the sheriff’s department and the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s Office is also conducting a concurrent investigation of their own because eventually, all three cases will come to them. Inmate deaths have to be reported to the local district attorney as mandated by state law.
Byrd said the NAACP filed the complaint because they had exhausted all of their own resources and an investigation could “provide hard facts about what happened.”
The decision to launch a federal investigation is made on a case by case basis, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
The first death at the jail was that of Craig Prescott, 38, of Modesto. According to the sheriff’s department, Prescott fought with the jailers on April 11 as they were moving him to a different area. The jailers used a Taser and pepper spray on Prescott. His breathing stopped and he was taken to Doctors Medical Center. Two days later he was taken off life-support and pronounced dead.
The second death was that of Manuel Dante Dent, 27, of Modesto on Aug. 26. Dent was shot with a Taser by the Modesto Police Department during his arrest. He was shot with the Taser in an attempt to keep him from swallowing what was suspected to be a baggy of drugs.
Dent was medically cleared at Doctors Medical Center and booked into the jail, but hours later he was found unresponsive on his bed. He was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
On Friday, the Stanislaus County Coroner’s Office released the autopsy findings for Dent, ruling the cause of death was an overdose of narcotics.
The coroner’s office said Dent died from methamphetamine intoxication “due to the ingestion of a small baggy of methamphetamine while evading law enforcement.” The toxicology results showed 9.6 mg per liter of methamphetamine, which is twice the toxic amount. He also had .17 mg per liter of amphetamine in his system.
The last death was of Alton Warren Ham, 45, of Oklahoma and occurred on Sept. 16. The sheriff’s department said Ham became combative when being transferred to another cell. The jailers used a Taser on him and he became unresponsive. Staff administered CPR, but he was declared dead at the jail.
Sheriff’s Capt. Tim Beck said the department has strict guidelines for the use of Tasers and that deputies are trained to quickly assess the situation and decide which tool to use to overcome the resistance. Included in the department’s guidelines are rules that a Taser should not be used if the fall would cause death or significant injury; and it cannot be used for coercion or punitive purposes.
To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail sstafford@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.

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