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By now, the circumstances of Sheldon Haleck’s death are well known.
The question remains who’s to blame.
Haleck, a former Hawaii Air National Guardsman, died March 17, 2015, after a violent struggle the night before with Honolulu police officers on South King Street in front of Iolani Palace.
Police officers were called to the scene around 8 p.m., responded to a report of an unidentified man darting through traffic wearing dark clothes.
When they arrived, they found Haleck acting erratically and refusing to leave the roadway.
First they deployed their pepper spray, then they used their Tasers. By the time Haleck was handcuffed, subdued and shackled, he had stopped breathing.
Opening statements are expected Wednesday in a federal civil trial in which Haleck’s family has accused three Honolulu police officers — Christopher Chung, Samantha Critchlow and Stephen Kardash — of using excessive force the night they tried to remove him from King Street.
The officers, on the other hand, say they were just doing their jobs and that Haleck died because he was high on methamphetamine and had other underlying health issues.
Ultimately, the case rests on a simple question: Who’s most responsible for Sheldon Haleck’s death — him or the cops who arrested him?
Eric Seitz, the attorney representing Haleck’s family, said he didn’t want to talk about the specifics of the case on the eve of trial.
He did say, however, that the lengths the city has gone to defend itself are “unprecedented.”
The fact that Haleck’s case has made it to trial is unique in itself, particularly in Honolulu, where such cases typically end with a cash settlement.
For example, after Honolulu police officers killed Aaron Torres in 2012, city lawyers decided it was more prudent to pay out $1.4 million to Torres’ family than to argue the facts of the case in open court.
The city paid out another $1 million settlement in 2017 in connection to the death of Stephen Dinnan. In that case, an HPD officer and off-duty firefighter mistook Dinnan for a truck thief.
One of the arguments the city made to try to get the Haleck case dismissed was that the officers were acting as “community caretakers” when they decided to pepper spray him and deploy their Tasers.
The city has argued such force was necessary to protect public safety because Haleck was in the middle of a highly trafficked roadway.
“The worst fear I have is that we lose this case and it emboldens the police to do more and it deters people from holding the police accountable.” — Eric Seitz
When the argument didn’t succeed, city attorneys went to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and then the U.S. Supreme Court, which did not take up the case.
Still, the fact that the city went to the nation’s highest court attracted outside attention, including from the National Association of Police Officers, the International Municipal Lawyers Association and the National Sheriffs’ Association.
Together they filed a legal brief to the Supreme Court in support of the city’s argument.
Seitz said the outside influence didn’t stop there. The city also plans to call as a witness a top official from the Taser company and other hired experts who will argue that Haleck died of a controversial malady known as “excited delirium.”
“The worst fear I have,” Seitz said, “is that we lose this case and it emboldens the police to do more and it deters people from holding the police accountable.”
Traci Morita, one of the city attorneys representing the officers in the case, declined to comment.
The official cause of Haleck’s death, according to an autopsy report, was “multiple metabolic and cardiac complications” following a physical altercation with police. The cause noted Haleck was also “acutely intoxicated” with methamphetamine.
The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, which was used as a medical classification, not proof of the officers’ intent to kill him.
Another term that came up in the autopsy — and is expected to be an issue during the trial — was “excited delirium.”
The term refers to a syndrome associated with symptoms of agitation, manic excitement, increased pain tolerance and unusual strength, according to a white paper by the American College of Emergency Physicians. It is also often associated with drug abuse and mental illness.
But the exact pathophysiology of the syndrome “remains unidentified,” the white paper also said.
In fact, many medical organizations and manuals do not recognize it as an actual medical diagnosis, including the World Health Organization, American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association.
The term primarily appears in medical examiners’ reports, especially related to law enforcement situations. It’s often tied to restraint methods used by police. Media reports and lawsuits have also linked the syndrome to police incidents involving Tasers.
The first official mention of excited delirium in the Haleck case came in his autopsy report, which was authored by Honolulu’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Christopher Happy.
He discussed excited delirium in the autopsy report, but quickly dismissed it as an official cause of death.
“Mr. Haleck displayed many of the signs and symptoms described in this syndrome,” Happy said. “However, there are currently no well established diagnostic criteria for this syndrome and the terminology represents a heterogeneous constellation of medical findings.”
But the city has since hired outside experts in an effort to bolster the idea that Haleck died from excited delirium rather than his scuffle with police.
Among the defense’s lineup of witnesses is Stacey Hail, a Texas-based emergency physician who has written about the relationship between electrical weapons and excited delirium.
A co-author for that article was another witness in the trial, Mark Kroll, a director for Axon Enterprise, Inc., which was formerly known as TASER International.
Another witness due to take the stand is John G. Peters, president of the Institute for the Prevention of In-Custody Deaths and certified Taser instructor. He’s participated in scientific studies on excited delirium and developed lesson plans used to train law enforcement on the syndrome.
John Burton, a California-based attorney, says he’s all too familiar with this “cast of characters.”
Kroll and Peters have testified together in similar cases before, including recently in Omaha, Nebraska, in a felony assault case against a cop who tased a mentally ill man in 2017.
“They’re sort of, in our field, a line-up of go-to guys for the defense,” Burton said. “We know what they’re going to say before they even say it.”
Burton has worked on police-related death and injury cases for most of his 40-year career, and has encountered Kroll on the witness stand. He said Kroll, who Burton notes is not a medical doctor, has been a leading voice saying Tasers are harmless.
Seitz tried to block excited delirium from being brought up during trial, saying in court filings “it has little scientific support and is typically raised as a defense by police officers when a person dies while in their custody.”
When arguing this point in a proceeding this week, Seitz told U.S. District Court Judge Helen Gillmor, who’s presiding over the case, “What killed him was the interaction with police.”
Morita, however, argued that his pre-existing conditions stemming from excited delirium cannot be ignored.
“Haleck was on this continuum of excited delirium,” she said.
Gillmor issued an order Tuesday denying Seitz’s attempts to block excited delirium and Kroll from testifying.
The trial is expected to last about eight days.
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