Taser and disrespect blamed for electrocution of epileptic deacon

By Tomi Morris Johnson

 tomij@wingcomltd.com     Photos by Tomi, Ilea, and Daniel Johnson

 ©2004 WingcomLtd. All Rights Reserved.

   

June 4, 2004, Lawrenceville, GA…“What’s going on out here?” was the question asked by many people walking into a mid-day candlelight prayer vigil held in the outdoor courtyard of the Gwinnett County Justice and Administration Building. Amidst flags and patriotic pillars sat the wife and four children of deceased stun gun victim Frederick Jerome Williams.

Surrounding them were mourners of various ages, lawyers, picketers, journalists, politicians and civil rights activists. The question of “What happened to tasered Fred Williams?” was overshadowed by “Will fairness prevail?”

The focus of the vigil was to demand a comprehensive investigation surrounding the death of Williams, to urge stoppage of nationwide use of stun guns, and to provide racial training to Gwinnett County police so they may be better able to serve the community

Grief-stricken mourner in the crowd pauses to think about the life and death of Deacon Fred Williams while she listens to speaker. “God knows all about justice…and an injustice has been committed against one of our own.”

Before the event officially started, some women on the sidelines were talking about never having problems with the police themselves; however, they refrained from having their pictures taken, saying they were afraid that if the police saw them, they might show up at their front doors.  “We’re worried about each other,” said one Lawrenceville resident who wished not to be identified.

Yellow candles burned, Williams’ son was comforted, and the family lawyer questioned the common sense of police who tasered victim. Mrs. Williams held youngest of four children in the background. Leaders from six civil rights organizations made “Remarks of Hope.”

The taser is an electro-shock device used on Williams, 31, as an alternative to guns or pepper spray. It disables the motor nerve system. In a victim with epilepsy, being tasered can result in death. According to Amnesty International, tasers are at best an unknown danger and at worst, killers.

According to Best StunGun.Com, the taser will not cause electrocution even if a victim is standing in water. Side effects should include a dazed feeling, involuntary muscle contractions, vertigo, and sometimes unconsciousness.  Yet the number of taser related deaths at the hands of law enforcement officials is 51, and severe neurological damage to surviving victims is rising.

Physicians are urged not to keep unsafe or harmful shock machines in their Class III category inventory. The use of tasers goes against the grain of the Hippocratic Oath required by all physicians to swear: First, do no harm. There is still controversy surrounding whether tasers cause death.

Joe Beasley & Tomi Johnson

Joe Beasley, Southern Regional Director of the Atlanta Rainbow Push Coalition, said the taser is a deadly apparatus, not a non-lethal one, in many circumstances. “It has proven to be quite lethal as of late. There have been two incidents here in Gwinnett County in the last eight months, and one in Fulton County a few days ago.  We need to redefine whether they are lethal or not. We should stop using them for the time being, until we determine whether there’s too much voltage…something is wrong because it’s killing people,” Beasley said.

The Gwinnett County Police Department was accused of misinformation surrounding the tragedy by Mr. Williams’ father, Dr. Klay Kieh, Jr., Dean of the Political Science Department at Morehouse College, who said they were out to “demonize Freddie as a violent man. We are in shock and great sadness,” Dr. Kieh continued.  “Freddie was a law abiding resident of the United States of America. During his lifetime, he was never involved in any criminal activity. The records are there for everyone to see…He was the quintessential model son, grandson, nephew, grandnephew and cousin.”

According to the Novartis website (http://www.trileptal.com/info/simplystated/what_is_epilepsy), epilepsy is a brain disorder which can result in changes in body movements, awareness, and emotions.  About 2 million people in the United States have epilepsy. The psychosis, when it emerges, can be sudden, and the behavior can be extravagant. Typically, hallucinations and delusions are noted; prominent are persecutory and religious phenomena. Well- directed violent attacks are seen in about 25% of episodes. (http://www.e-epilepsy.org.uk/pages/articles/show_article.cfm?id=69) According to the National Society of Epilepsy (UK), relatives often describe this as the 'calm before the storm'.

“Freddie was a quiet, calm, unassuming and loving man,” Kiel told the crowd. “He had a serene demeanor. His wife has made it crystal clear that throughout their marriage, Freddie never, never visited violence on her.”  Dr. Kieh, who is running for president of Liberia, said the behavior his son exhibited on May 25, 2004 was the consequence of his epileptic condition. “One does not need to be a medical doctor to realize…that in the case of epilepsy, it has a profound impact on behavior,” Kieh continued. “On that fateful day, Freddie had two epileptic seizures; thus, he was temporarily delusional.”

Dr. Diel also stated, “We realize that we are engaged in a proverbial David versus Goliath battle with Gwinnett County.”

According to Edgar Railey, the victim’s uncle, Williams was shocked three times and had stun gun burns on his chest and neck. Taser contact with the skin at dangerous voltages can also result in severe damage to internal organs. Railey explained what happened during a telephone interview.

Sign taped to podium at prayer vigil.

“Fred was my sister’s son.  Since birth, he had this disease – epilepsy. Prior to the incident, he had not taken his medicine. I know how he would get right before an attack – very strong. On several occasions, he would hurt himself from falling on his back or face.  One time he almost broke my hand when I was trying to wrestle him down, but he was not a mad man. 

“He was practically beaten to death at his home before he got to the jail,” Railey continued. “His wife had called 911 and asked for paramedics to be sent over to the house. She called to get him stabilized.  Instead, they sent a police officer. His wife didn’t understand why they sent the police instead of medics. Then his nine year old son called again, asking them to, ‘Send the truck with the medicine,’ which I think he was referring to an ambulance. 

“When the police officer showed up, he remarked, ‘I’ve got this,’ even though the wife kept telling him that he could not handle Fred without the help of medics.  At that point, the policeman took his stick or baton and tried to hit my nephew. The hits were blocked, and then my nephew took the stick away from the policeman and hit him in the nose. At that point, the policeman issued an “officer down code” and 15 squad cars with some 20 officers arrived,” Railey said. “He was badly beaten and near death before he reached the jail.”

Scenes outside Gwinnett County Justice and Administration Building during the vigil were both peaceful and frenetic.

When asked was Williams’ death racially motivated, Riley said, “I don’t know what their objective was, but something definitely went wrong. Personally, when it comes to African Americans, I think we are treated with disrespect.  If the first officer had just listened to the wife…Now the district attorney is on record saying he will handle the investigation, and don’t push his buttons by bringing in outsiders.  He has a duty to investigate. He’s not dealing with some poor immigrants who won’t stand up for their rights,” Railey said.

Gwinnett County Police Public Information Officer Dan Huggins, who mentioned that he had not reviewed the 911 tapes, gave this account leading up to Williams’ arrest. “We received up to four 911 calls from the residence.  When the son called, he said his father was beating him and his mother with a belt. When violence is involved, it generates a police response.

“The name of the officer answering the call was R. Kenyon.  He met Mr. Williams in front of the house, and Williams started calling the officer a devil. While trying to place Williams under arrest, a struggled ensued. The officer hit Williams twice on the arm with his baton, and then Williams took the baton away. Then Williams threw the baton at Officer Kenyon and went into the house.

“In the officer’s words (reading from the report), he tried to talk to Williams who was highly agitated and who attempted to grab him.  Officers are trained as first responders, but Officer Kenyon states that he felt he was under attack.  Officer Kenyon then made a help call, a Code 63, which signals that he needed help five minutes ago. In this case, a large officer response force did arrive.

“We dispute any comments that say Mr. Williams was beaten. He did have baton strikes to his arm. When he was arrested, he showed no apparent medical emergency and showed no apparent medical problems when he was transported to jail. I am not aware of any pre-seizure stage in epileptics when someone starts going crazy,” Huggins added.

After Williams was arrested, he was taken to the Gwinnett County Detention Center at 2900 University Parkway in Lawrenceville.  Gwinnett Sheriff’s Department PIO Stacey Kelly described what took place. “When Mr. Williams was brought into the sally port, he was extremely combative and was placed in a restraint chair to control him.  He was still fighting.  An M26 taser was administered at least twice. After the first administration, he continued fighting. After the second taser shock, he went unconscious. He was then transported to the Gwinnett Medical Center where he died two days later. 

Amnesty International deems tasers and restraint chairs torture apparatuses. Law enforcement uses them to manage violent citizens.

“The taser that Mr. Williams received was not the one which fires a cartridge; it was the one you press to the skin,” Kelly stated. When asked if the community is involved in deciding whether tasers are included in the non-lethal arsenal of police weapons, she said, “That is an administrative decision based on facts, safety, and what other departments are using.”

Kelly admits she was not aware of the actual voltage of the taser, however, she stated “There was no evidence of electrocution because there was not enough voltage.”  According to Fact sheet by CNN.com, the Advanced Taser M26’s electrical output is 50,000 volts. Electrocution is defined as death caused by the passage of a low frequency electric current through the body. Construction workers have been electrocuted while working with 7,500 volts. Some think that it is not the amount of volts that can kill, but the amount of amps and ohms. In Williams’ case, death may have been the result of a combination of things: his epileptic medical condition, sweat, electrical shock, materials in the restraint chair, etc. Restraint chairs have been connected to a dozen deaths in U.S. jails according to Amnesty International. Kelly said investigations into Williams’ death are being conducted by the county police department and internally by the sheriff’s department.

The current, the duration, and the power source that produces the shock determine the physiological effects of electrical shock.

Ted Bailey, chief forensic investigator for the Gwinnett Medical Examiners Office, is not a medical doctor but is handling media inquires into the ongoing investigation. “The autopsy has been completed and shows no obvious cause of death.  There were burns to the skin from taser shock, but no evidence at this time that says the taser directly caused death.  The cause of death is pending a review of the patient’s medical records from the hospital, his physician, and toxicology and histology reports that will show whether there were any drugs in his system.  This investigation will take several months to complete,” Bailey said.

SCLC leader Joseph Lowery sat under umbrella held by Georgia House Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-54), the surviving Williamses listened, and friends and family consoled each other. Mrs. Williams was composed during the vigil that included hymns and serious questions. Participants held green leaflets of information on Deacon Fred Williams and placards against police brutality.

According to the family’s lawyer, Melvin Johnson, Williams was sweaty after the altercation and was possibly electrocuted. “I’m not a medical expert, but I will tell you this - from the 911 call that was placed that summoned the police, his wife described the situation aptly: as a man who was delusional, who was seeing and talking to the devil. She described an individual that she saw had not been on his medication, and she asked clearly for ambulance help and assistance. I believe there may have been some aggressive or violent behavior displayed by him…but to use the kind of force that resulted in his death…we have a lot of questions about that.

“The only research I’m aware of regarding tasers has come from the taser company, Taser International. The company has reported doubling its revenue recently. You don’t expect them to come out and say their product is killing people, hence opening up product liability suits. I have not read any objective research or empirical data investigating the taser gun. Everything that I have heard has come from people who have good reasons and all of the reasons to say it’s a non-lethal weapon.

“We’re urging the community and everybody who can read, hear, and listen to this story to call your Congressmen and women, the GBI’s office, the FBI’s office, and demand that an objective and comprehensive investigation be conducted in this case and all the other cases as well.  Additionally, demand that stun gun usage cease until further objective investigation and research can be performed regarding stun gun safety."

Attorney Johnson said that common sense should have told law enforcement not to taser a person in Williams’ medical condition.

Percy Scott is a rehabilitation counselor who attended the vigil. “I have had a lot of epileptics on my caseload. Epilepsy is the imbalance of electrical impulses coming from the brain. If that is broken, then your brain is not telling your heart to beat or telling your lungs to breathe. I think more research needs to be done by the company that produces that gun and a study done on the way it affects people with epilepsy. There are over 40 deaths related to taser use which were investigated by independent coroners, and they said that tasers had nothing to do with it (death), but that’s a lot of coincidence. That’s my concern. A moratorium should be declared on the use of these guns,” Scott said.

“But for him being shocked, would he be dead?”

                                                                                                Brian Whiteside, Esq.

Brian Whiteside is an attorney and former deputy sheriff who is presently running for Gwinnett County Sheriff on the Republican ticket. “I don’t know if what happened was intentional, that the death occurred, but I do think they tried to stop possible violence or perceived violence. We need to be looking at different alternatives to stop non-lethal attacks upon police officers, and we also need to look at non-lethal weapons in a different light, weapons being offered by the United States military and the Marines Corps. In particular, they have laser beams and light disablers that can disorient a person and also high intensity sound devices. We need to look at every avenue.

“At this point, we need to take a hard look at the weapon, the grief caused to the mother and the children, and also the societal costs. What is going to happen with the resulting lawsuit? Not only do you have to look at the human aspect, but the economic aspect. There’s going to be a lawsuit, and win, lose, or draw, it’s going to cost the county money; the deputy’s money, retirement money, and equipment money. The taxpayers will be paying for this loss,” Whiteside said.  None of the four county employees that I talked to knew whether Bureau of Justice Form CJ-11A  - Death in Custody, had been completed by authorities.

“If one suffers, we all suffer…tomorrow will be easier.”

Rev. Michael Vinney, Farewell to Pres. Reagan ceremony

“Using the taser was a discretionary decision made by law enforcement. We need to have individual meetings with the chief of police and the commissioners, the human resource council, Percy Scott, anyone involved, and talk about some of our concerns.  We should keep all communications open and not look at people in an adversarial light…you need to look at this situation for what it is…an individual event related to another individual event, and scientifically look at it…are they related…but for him being shocked, would he be dead.” 

Some deem tasering a form of torture. In the Food and Drug Administration’s Management Docket #2003P-0555, caution is placed on classifying “shock machines” in the safe category, which are deemed NOT safe, with administration resulting in death, brain damage, memory loss and brainwashing. Before tasers are introduced into communities, there should be approval from citizens on whether to include them in their police and sheriff department’s arsenal of weapons. It is reported that Gwinnett County law enforcement plans to purchase more tasers despite the outcome of the Williams investigation.

TASER is an acronym for Thomas A. Swift’s electric rifle.

“It shouldn’t be them against us, for as you know, the police work for us; we don’t work for the police. We’re here to work together as human beings.” When asked about justice prevailing in this situation, Scott concluded, “The only way you are going to have justice is to have people in power who are just. You can achieve this by electing the proper people.” Stun guns are restricted in seven states, eight US cities, and thirteen countries.

Should a person undergoing an epileptic seizure be tasered?  What affect would a stun gun have on a person who is undergoing an epileptic seizure? Taser International has recently announced plans to discontinue its Air Taser product, but will soon be marketing a “tamer” version of the stun gun to the general public. On the day of the vigil, Taser International TASR (NASDAQ) stock was trading at $25.89, down 1.48%. The company headquarters is in Scottsdale, AZ and is operated by Phillip, Patrick and Thomas Smith.

For more information on this topic and electroshock weapons, go to:
http://www.arnehansen.net/010227amnesty.htm
http://www.amnestyusa.org/rightsforall/stun/cruelty/index.htm
http://www.taser.com/pages/techsupport/06.html
http://nzhta.chmeds.ac.nz/Physical_restraint.PDF

A fund has been set up for the Williams family. Donations can be taken to Washington Mutual Bank.

Information about Frederick Jerome Williams

·        Born: June 27, 1972

·        Place of Birth:  Kakata, Liberia, West Africa

·        Memberships: International Christian Fellowship Ministries, Atlanta, GA

·        Favorite Scripture:  Ephesians 4: 10-18 – “Put on the whole armor of God.”

·        Wife: Yanga Gibson Williams. Married:  June 15, 1996.  Four children, ages 1 – 9       

One of Williams’ daughters, wearing a T-shirt with his picture, carried a sign with hearts reading, “I Will Miss U, Daddy.”

The information in this article is the opinion of the author and, therefore, should not be construed as libelous.  ©2004 WingcomLtd. All Rights Reserved.