“Excited Delirium” Blamed For Natasha McKenna’s Death In Custody; Questions Raised About No Fairfax Police Officer Ever Being Charged After A Fatal Shooting


(4-28-15) A woman with schizophrenia, who was repeatedly shot with a 50,000 volt Taser while in jail restrained with handcuffs and leg shackles, died from “excited delirium,” according to the Virginia Medical Examiner’s Office.

In an editorial in today’s Washington Post, the newspaper described that ruling as being “troubling for several reasons.” My former colleagues at The Post have been aggressively reporting on the death of Natasha McKenna ever since I revealed nearly three months ago the violent circumstances surrounding the 37 year-old black woman’s death while in custody. Here is a snippet from the Post editorial.

Medical examiners around the country have cited ‘excited delirium’ as a cause of death with increasing frequency for the past decade or so, almost exclusively in cases involving civilians — arrested and prison or jail inmates — who die in struggles with law enforcement officers. Not infrequently, those deaths have involved the use of stun guns, usually Tasers, by police…

The American Civil Liberties Union, among others, has cast doubt on ‘excited delirium’ as a cause of death, suggesting it is used mainly to give cover to excessive use of force by law enforcement…That point is reinforced by the fact that neither the American Medical Association nor the American Psychiatric Association appears to recognize ‘excited delirium’ as a medical or mental health condition…Outside of the medical examiner’s profession, the term does not seem to occur in medical textbooks.

According to the Post, the medical examiner classified her death as an ‘accident’ as distinguished from a homicide, which would have implied the correction officers who shot her at least four times intended to kill her.

Although McKenna died while in the custody of the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office, her death has fueled concern in Fairfax about recent fatal shootings that involve law enforcement officers. County officials’ admitted mishandling the shooting of John Greer . Outrage about that case prompted county supervisors to appoint an Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission. (However, neither the county board of supervisors or commission has authority over the sheriff’s office, which acts independently of them.)

The Ah Hoc Commission held its second meeting Monday (5-27) during which two Fairfax prosecutors bristled at a claim that the county has never in its 75-year history prosecuted a law enforcement officer after a fatal shooting.

Appearing before the commission as an invited guest, Fairfax Commonwealth Attorney Raymond R. Morrogh acknowledged that no Fairfax police officer had been criminally charged after a shooting during his tenure.

His former boss, Robert F. Horan Jr., who was the county’s chief prosecutor for more than forty years and was invited to serve on the commission, said that he had presented evidence to a grand jury in the 1970s after a police shooting in Herndon, but jurors chose not to indict the officer. Both Morrogh and Horan said they resented the implication that they have protected police officers involved in fatal shootings or had treated them differently from citizens involved in fatal shootings.

Commission Member Nicholas Beltrante, a former police officer, who has pushed county officials to create a citizen panel to review police shootings, clearly irked  Morrogh and Horan when he noted that no officer had been charged even though the Ad Hoc Commission had been told that fatal police shootings in Fairfax have averaged three deaths per year since 1995.

An unidentified man, who attended the hearing wearing a mask to shield his face from cameras, asked why Fairfax investigators did not immediately interview police officers involved in fatal shootings, but instead gave them two days before questioning them. The detective invited to the commission to explain police procedures offered several justifications for the two day delay, including giving an officer time to collect his thoughts so he could give a full and coherent statement. That answer did not satisfy the questioner.

Another Commission member, Mary Kimm, editor of the Connection Newspapers (several suburban Virginia newspapers) asked Morrogh why footage from a dash video in a police car had not been made public after his office decided not to prosecute a Fairfax County policeman who fatally shot David A. Masters in November 2009. Masters’s family said he had a mental illness. He was fatally shot by Officer David S. Ziants while sitting in his truck at a red light after a shop owner called police and said Masters had taken flowers from a planter outside a business. Ziants was later fired by the department because of the shooting.

Morrogh said he would not object to releasing the dash video of that incident, but said that it did not show the actual shooting. Kimm said that several Freedom of Information Requests had been filed asking for the footage but that it had not been made public.

Morrogh also told Commission Member Peggy Fox, a WUSA news reporter, that he would not object to Fairfax County police being issued body cameras.

I am serving on the commission and during a Q and A period, I asked if Fairfax Police kept track of how many fatal shootings in Fairfax involved persons with mental illnesses and how many officers involved in those shootings had undergone Crisis Intervention Team training. I was told that investigators routinely ask about a victim’s mental condition and also review the shooting officer’s training record but that the department has never done any studies based on that information.

The Medical Examiner’s ruling in the McKenna case now will permit the Fairfax County Police Department to conclude its criminal investigation into what happened inside the jail when McKenna was shot repeatedly with a Taser. Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin C. Rosessler Jr. told me that his office couldn’t proceed until after the examiner’s office issued its findings. Sheriff Stacey Kincaid has promised that her department will release information about the McKenna incident after the police department concludes its investigation.

One of the items that The Post and others have asked to be made public is a video taken by deputies of McKenna being shot with a Taser. Not surprisingly, sources inside the jail, who have watched the video, have told me that the public will be both outraged and sickened when — and if –it is released.

The Ad Hoc Commission will listen to public comments at its next meeting on May 18th. The chairman of the commission, Michael Hershman, announced last night, which subcommittees the 30-plus commissioners have been appointed to serve on. I was assigned to serve on the subcommittee examining police procedures and mental health, as was Robert Cluck, the Northern Virginia NAMI member, on the commission. The subcommittee will be chaired by Marcus Simon, a Democrat member of the Virginia House of Delegates. Bob Cluck and I asked Simon after the meeting was adjourned to add someone with a mental illness to the subcommittee and he assured us that he would.

Stay tuned.

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.