Michael Clark Autopsy Update

Taser effects expert and former San Diego Co., Calif., EMS medical director concludes Clark was killed as a result of intravascular sickling caused by overexertion tied to drug use – a conclusion that closely mirrors that of Travis Co. Deputy Medical Examiner Elizabeth Peacock.

In a letter dated March 31, Gary Vilke, former San Diego County EMS medical director, concluded that 33-year-old Michael Clark, who died after a confrontation with Austin police in September, was killed by intravascular sickling caused by overexertion tied to drug use – a conclusion that closely mirrors that of Travis Co. Deputy Medical Examiner Elizabeth Peacock. Unlike Peacock, however, Vilke also noted that the extreme heat of the day, and perhaps the Taser strikes delivered by police would in fact be "considered another physical stressor" playing on Clark's overstressed system.

On Sept. 26, APD police responded to a call for service and found Clark in an altercation – apparently he had been stopping motorists along William Cannon Drive and trying to pull them out of their cars (he later told police that he was trying to effect a citizen's arrest). According to police, Clark was "displaying behavior that was violent and irrational." He was initially cooperative and got into the backseat of a police cruiser, but when a mental-health officer arrived and tried to place Clark in handcuffs, Clark refused and told police he would fight if they tried to restrain him. Thus began an hours-long standoff, during which police – standing in the nearly 108-degree record heat – formulated a plan to get Clark out of the car safely. In the end, nine police were on the scene before they pulled Clark out of the car, used a Taser on him several times and then, finally, got him into handcuffs; minutes later, however, Clark went into "medical distress" and died shortly after being loaded into an ambulance.

In her autopsy, Peacock concluded that Clark died from "massive" intravascular sickling, caused by sickle-cell trait – a typically asymptomatic relative of sickle-cell disease, in which a person carries a single deformed gene and not the two required for the full-blown disease – triggered by a PCP-induced state of agitation known as "excited delirium." Notably, Peacock excluded absolutely any external contributing causes to the fatality; specifically, she concluded that neither the extreme heat of the day nor the repeated Taser strikes contributed, in any way, to Clark's death.

While Vilke – one of the first doctors to study the link between Taser strikes and cardiac changes – ultimately agreed with Peacock's conclusion, that Clark's death was the result of fatal sickling, he also noted that both heat and Taser strikes could be counted as "stressors" hastening the fatal sickling event. Clark's "body was under physical stress from his own exertion, the high temperature, his struggle with police and most importantly the stimulant drugs," Vilke wrote. "The use of the Taser would be considered another physical stressor, but Mr. Clark's demise was unfortunately already set in motion by the mere fact that he used drugs on an extremely hot day and was engaging in an activity that resulted in a physical altercation with police."

Vilke's letter, addressed to Austin-Travis Co. EMS Medical Director Ed Racht, comes just over a month after Vilke, Racht, and more than 20 other members of the Metropolitan Municipalities EMS Medical Directors Consortium met in Dallas to review and discuss the health effects of Taser use. Although the doctors concluded that Tasers are safe when used with restraint – and often far safer than other weapons, like police batons – they said in a statement that strong oversight is necessary to ensure proper use of the electro-shock gun, USA Today reported in February. The doctors noted that proper use of the weapon means delivering as few shocks as possible and only when there is a risk of injury to officers or others. They recommend that police agencies using the weapon keep close track of their use and encourage officers to think before acting, said the daily, and they urged police and EMS to work together on developing guidelines to help prevent Taser-related injuries or deaths.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Michael Clark, Taser, Ed Racht, Gary Vilke, sickle cell trait, excited delirium, Austin Police Department, APD, EMS, Metropolitan Municipalities EMS Medical Directors Consortium, Travis Co. Medical Examiner's Office, Elizabeth Peacock, in-custody death

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