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What Happened to James Chasse: Chasse jurors cite policy 'holes'

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Chasse jurors cite policy 'holes'

from The Oregonian, by Maxine Bernstein
Multnomah County grand jurors who reviewed the death of James P. Chasse Jr. in police custody said they had concerns about police, medical and jail procedures but were unanimous in their finding of no criminal wrongdoing.

"There are definite holes in the policy and procedures as to how this case was handled," said juror Daniel Beck, 31, who works in the semiconductor field. "But we didn't find any criminal fault in his death."

The jurors, four men and three women, began discussing the testimony as they received it over five days, in between hearing 16 other property crime and drug offense cases. Three of the seven jurors agreed to be interviewed.

While hearing testimony from 30 people in the Chasse case, the jurors raised some perplexing questions: How could the paramedics who evaluated Chasse at the scene not detect the seriousness of his injuries? How could his vital signs, including his pulse and respiration, have been normal if he just suffered fractures to 16 ribs? Why did the jail nurse not do a full medical evaluation?

Chasse, a 42-year-old who suffered from schizophrenia, died in police custody Sept. 17 after police struggled to arrest him when he ran from them. Chasse died of broad-based blunt force trauma to the chest. Broken ribs punctured a lung, impairing his breathing.

Clara Tierheimer, a 54-year-old microbiologist, said one of the basic, agonizing questions was when and how the fatal injuries occurred. Dr. Karen Gunson, the state medical examiner, testified that the side-and-back rib fractures probably were caused by a very large, crushing-type of force, a huge object hitting him or falling from a great height, three jurors said.

"One of the big problems we had was really establishing where this all took place, in terms of the crushing injuries," Tierheimer recounted.

Conflicting testimony


Jurors heard from seven civilian eyewitnesses, including staff and patrons at Bluehour Restaurant, and pedestrians who saw the initial police action.

Randall Stuart, a pedestrian who filed an excessive-force complaint with the city, was the first witness called. He said he was given ample time to explain what he saw, and even acted out the kicking and punching. "I saw all four men go down in skids, tumbles and rolls in what was a chaotic takedown," Stuart said. "I saw no whole body slap upon another body."

Diane Loghry of Washington, who was seated on the front patio of Bluehour with a friend, said in an interview she first heard loud screaming and yelling. She said she was facing the street and saw three officers tackle Chasse.

"It was a three-on-one combative, get-him-down-to-the-ground. They were using every part of their bodies to get him down," Loghry said. "They were on top of him."

Once Chasse was down, the officers yelled at him to get onto his stomach, and he wouldn't. She saw one officer punch him in the torso, saying "Don't bite me!" Two other officers, she said, were near Chasse's legs, one officer with his knee on Chasse's back, both "using their bodies to hold him down."

No medical treatment

Loghry was called to testify before the grand jury. She said what struck her was that Chasse, who was "moaning and groaning and obviously in distress," wasn't taken directly to a hospital.

"That they didn't put him in the ambulance was beyond me," Loghry said.

Her friend Melissa Gaylord, who was seated facing the restaurant but turned to see much of the action and was interviewed by detectives, was not subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury.

"I am so assured that not one of them fell on him," Gaylord said. She said all the officers had their hands on Chasse, and she said one pushed his head to the ground.

Benjamin Persyn, 26, a waiter at Bluehour, was late to work that day and was driving east on Northwest Everett Street when he saw the officers struggling with Chasse, already on the ground. He said the officers were on top of Chasse, and he heard Chasse screaming, "No!"

"They weren't full body weight. They were trying to hold him down and trying to get his arms behind his back," Persyn said. By the time Persyn parked, he said, he was stunned to see the officers still struggling with Chasse.

Constance Doolan, a friend of Stuart's from Oakland, Calif., who watched the encounter, provided a signed affidavit of her observations. She said she believed the officers fell on top of Chasse. "That was my impression, that they fell on top of him," she said, describing a heavy hit to the pavement.

The jurors noted there were inconsistencies among the witnesses' accounts but found that most relayed that they watched the officers tackle Chasse and at least one officer land on him. Others testified that they just saw a "pile of people," said juror Jeremy Waggoner, 31, an X-ray technician at Portland Adventist Hospital.

"One could hear the thump or the echo of when the officer fell on Chasse," juror Beck said.

Because the majority of the witnesses said they saw an officer fall on Chasse, the jurors found that to be the most likely cause of the injury. Further, the medical examiner pointed out the damage to the chest was to such a broad area, and the rib fractures were in such a "linear position" that it was not practical that the fatal injuries were caused by kicks or punches.

Dr. William Brady, a former state medical examiner was the final witness called to testify at the Chasse family's request. Three jurors interviewed said he was reluctant to pinpoint the action that caused the fatal injuries and didn't discredit Gunson's autopsy. Brady did point out, however, that Chasse's pulse would not have been normal after having had his ribs fractured and lung punctured.

Jurors puzzled by medics

Why the ambulance medics found Chasse's vital signs normal remains a mystery, jurors said.

"Nobody could explain it," Tierheimer said.

Beck said he struggled to understand how Chasse could be yelling and screaming after having suffered such serious rib injuries. "To me, that was the biggest question," Beck said.

Jurors said they were told by the medical examiner that someone in a psychotic state may not have the same pain threshold as expected. The jurors found that Chasse did not display a normal reaction to his injuries, Beck said. He said that might have been the reason Chasse's struggle with police went on for as long as it did, because he didn't seem to be fazed by numerous police "pain compliance" techniques.

"He was yelling, kicking, still fighting," Beck said. "He was not reacting in a way consistent with those injuries."

The jurors found the officers followed their training. After hearing from Portland Police Bureau training officers, the jurors found that officers were justified in punching and kicking Chasse after he bit one officer and tried to bite another, the jurors said.

"I felt everything the police did followed their protocol," Waggoner said. "Their actions were all a reaction to Chasse's actions."

Some jurors said they wondered whether the injuries may have occurred at another time, but there was no evidence provided to support that theory. They watched a video of Chasse being led into jail and found nothing of concern.

Most disturbing to jurors, however, was the lack of medical care or evaluation provided once Chasse was taken to jail. The jail nurse testified that her sole duty was to determine whether Chasse was medically fit to be booked. Chasse was in an isolation cell, and, moments before the nurse was called, seemed to go unconscious in front of Portland Officer Christopher Humphreys.

The jail nurse testified that she saw Chasse through a cell door window and spotted open sores on his legs. She believed he was septic and determined he was unacceptable for booking. She also told jurors that it's common for inmates to fake seizures, jurors said. She didn't think he needed immediate care and had the officers take him to Portland Adventist Hospital, the hospital the county contracts with for care of jail suspects.

Jurors asked why an ambulance wasn't called. "She said the policy is 'that they leave how they come in,' " Beck said. "My personal feeling was you didn't really evaluate him so how can you make that call? There should be some actual medical evaluation."

Sheriff responds

Multnomah County Sheriff Bernie Giusto said he agrees that the jail must adopt stricter procedures on who is medically evaluated, how that evaluation will be done, and how staff determine whether an ambulance should be called.

"The fact is that officers in patrol vehicles were never meant to be transporting seriously injured people," Giusto said.

The three jurors interviewed defended their ruling, although some are already feeling the wrath of co-workers or friends. They said they hope some policy changes result.

"We did not feel we were just running through the motions. It was a thorough, open review," Beck said. "Throughout, jurors were saying, 'They should've done this, or they should've done things this way.' "

Waggoner said, "It was a tragic thing that happened. Had they known this guy was schizophrenic, maybe things would have been different."

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