Natasha McKenna died in the custody of the Fairfax County Police department of Virginia. According to the department, detectives have finished initial interviews concerning her death in an investigation that is now substantially complete. Various reports contend that McKenna, who was mentally ill, was Tasered at least four times before her death. Independently, the Taser that was used is being tested to find out whether it was operating within specifications, according to police. Once the investigation is complete, the Office of the Commonwealth of Virginia will receive the relevant evidence and determine whether there is criminal liability on the part of the department, which lies within the metropolitan area of Washington DC.
McKenna was charged with assault on an Alexandria VA police officer on Jan. 26. She had had a history of run-ins with the law. An examination by the Virginia Medical Examiner showed that McKenna was subjected to four jolts from a Taser before her death. She was restrained on February 3 while deputies were attempting to transport her from one jail to another in Fairfax County where she could obtain mental health treatment. According to reports, the 130-pound McKenna – who suffered bouts of schizophrenia – fought with six Fairfax County Sheriff deputies, prompting them to shock her four times in the thigh with a Taser so that she would bend her legs and allow them to shackle her to a restraining chair. Thereafter she went into a coma and passed away five days later in hospital. According to the medical examiner, McKenna’s death was attributed to "excited delirium associated with physical restraint, including the use of conducted energy device."
The Fairfax County jail has since banned the use of Tasers. In a statement sent to radio station WUSA, sheriff department spokesperson Andrea Ceisler said that "When an unusual event occurs, it is standard practice to review specific policy and procedures in reference to that event.” She added, "Due to the recent incident, we are focused on the Taser policy and, as you are now aware, have temporarily suspended the use of this device in the ADC pending completion of our review."
‘Excited delirium’ has been associated with six other cases since 2007 in Virginia, according to the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Five of those cases involved victims who were in the custody of law officers. However, the American Civil Liberties Union questions the use of the term ‘excited delirium’, as do some medical experts. The ACLU contends that this particular cause of death appears to be used only in cases of persons who die while struggling with law officers. Amnesty International reported that, nationally, ‘excited delirium’ was found in 75 of the 330 Taser deaths at the hands of police between 2001 and 2008. However, the Washington Post found more than two dozen other examples in which ‘excited delirium’ was cited in in-custody deaths.
An attorney for McKenna’s surviving family members disputed the ruling on her death and said that Fairfax County deputies “tortured and killed” her. He is demanding the release of a video that recorded the incident.
Some law enforcement agencies, medical examiners and physicians contend that ‘excited delirium’ is indeed a real and frightening condition. Those persons in such a delirium, especially when under the influence of cocaine or methamphetamines, are impervious to pain and act wildly. In a case in Vancouver, Canada, a man allegedly in a state of ‘excited delirium’ was able to lift five police officers. However, there is apparently no consensus on the condition among groups representing physicians and medical experts. The American College of Emergency Physicians and the National Association of Medical Examiners, for instance, recognize ‘excited delirium.’ However, the American Medical Association and American Psychological Association have not yet taken a stand for or against recognition.
Media sources cited Dr. Vincent Di Maio, a retired forensic pathologist, who said that McKenna may well have been in the grips of excited delirium. Di Maio, who authored a book on the condition, said that excited delirium is well documented in medical case history dating back to 1849 and that there is no major scientific objection to it.
Arkuie Williams, State Administrator of Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, responded as to how the cause of death is determined. In an email to the media, Williams said:
Manner of death is a medical opinion based on the cause of death and the known facts concerning circumstances leading up to and surrounding the death. The medical examiner completes a physical examination of the deceased and collects information on the events surrounding the death. This information may include, but is not limited to medical records, police reports, witness statements, death scene photographs, drawings, and descriptions as well as any other documentary evidence of the circumstances surrounding the death. In some cases, this investigation may include re-enactment.
Based on all of this information, the medical examiner classifies the manner of death as natural, accident, suicide, or homicide according to the following brief definitions.
Natural – the body ceases to function due to disease or natural aging processes.
Homicide – intentional taking of a human life by another human being.
Accident – death due to injury from unplanned and unintended events.
Suicide – death from intentional, self-inflicted injury.
If, in the opinion of the medical examiner, the information available about the death does not differentiate between one or more of the four manners, the manner may be classified as undetermined.
The manner of death certified by the medical examiner is a medical opinion and has no direct impact on criminal or civil prosecution.
Fairfax County officials are hopeful that a grant of $2.8 million from the state for police training and staffing will reduce the need for SWAT response to incidents involving the mentally ill. Those suffering from mental issues could be then send for assessment by mental health professionals instead of incarceration.
Concerning the McKenna case, an article on the website of Liberation - a publication of the Party of Socialism and Liberation - said, "This is an outrage. The long history of police brutality in the United States already has too many chapters, and Natasha McKenna’s story is an unwelcome addition to that sad history. Fairfax County’s cavalier attitude towards justice shows that there are two tracks for “justice” in the United States: one for killer cops, bankers and war criminals, and another for everyone else. That second system has been in the news as the responsible entity for Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and many more, but those are just pinholes shedding light on a system which kills a Black person every 28 hours and whose prison population is 39.4 percent Black and 20.6 percent Latino."