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Deaths from police restraint present complex forensic, legal issues

Tanisha Anderson, a 37-year-old black woman, died during a struggle with Cleveland police in 2014. Her death was certified a homicide, but a judge refused to allow the medical examiner to testify and ruled parts of the autopsy report inadmissible.

According to news reports, Anderson suffered from bipolar disorder and psychotic episodes. On Nov. 13, 2014, her family summoned police to “calm her down” and take her to a treatment facility.

Anderson resisted. Officers initially said she was fighting and kicking and that she suddenly went limp as they tried to get her into a police car.

Anderson’s brother, Joell, witnessed the event. He said his sister “began to panic” as she was escorted to the car. Officers slammed her head on the sidewalk, and one of them held her down with a knee on her back.

The Cuyahoga County medical examiner ruled Anderson’s death a homicide because she “died as a result of being physically restrained in a prone position by Cleveland police.” The opinion relied at least in part on mandatory interviews of the involved officers conducted during an internal investigation.

Anderson’s death launched a criminal investigation, and the Anderson family filed a wrongful death suit.

A few months ago, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Presiding Judge John J. Russo barred the medical examiner’s testimony based on a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court opinion. The court found that when people are required to participate in internal investigation interviews, their statements amount to mandatory self-incrimination. Therefore, neither the statements nor opinions such as the medical examiner’s that rely thereon are admissible in court.

A spokesperson for Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said the office would “have to consider” the difficulty of continuing a homicide investigation without the medical examiner’s cause-of-death report.

Tanisha Anderson’s death raises many issues, but I’ll confine myself to the conundrum faced by a medical examiner investigating a death during restraint.

When such a death occurs, people expect more than forensic science can deliver. Restraint deaths are physiologically complicated and usually multifactorial. They arise from a poisonous brew concocted from some combination of natural disease, mental illness, the deleterious effects of substance abuse or withdrawal, physical and psychological stress, breathing impairment and plain bad luck.

Autopsies can identify natural diseases and detect and measure drugs. They can’t retrospectively evaluate mental illness, measure stress or determine oxygen levels.

Medical examiners can document some potential causative factors and infer others from history and circumstances. They can’t cherry-pick one cause from a host of possibilities or reliably assign percentages of blame.

Only by evaluating a blow-by-blow, minute-by-minute account of what happened can medical examiners use their knowledge of human physiology to try to figure out which factors were most important in a particular case.

No detailed account of an event can be constructed without the recollections of the participants. So a medical examiner who is denied access to the statements of officers involved in a restraint death is denied the single most valuable source of information needed to arrive at an opinion.

But according to Judge Russo, a medical examiner opinion based on officer statements mandated by an internal investigation is inadmissible in court because that opinion derives from a violation of those officers’ constitutional rights.

So does society want the best opinion a medical examiner can give? Or do we want to protect the rights of the accused to the greatest degree possible? When it comes to a restraint death, it appears we can’t have both.

Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003 to 2012. She now lives in Florida and Maryland. Email her at chuser@durangoherald.com.