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Md. Federal Trial Involving Stun Gun Death Begins

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BALTIMORE (AP) — An attorney told a federal jury Tuesday that a former Frederick County sheriff’s deputy was “sadistic” for using an electric stun gun on a prone and unresponsive young man who was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.

But a defense attorney says former Cpl. Rudy Torres didn’t know that Jarrel Gray, 20, was unarmed and that the officer used the weapon in 2007 according to his training.

“You will hear from credible witnesses that Deputy Torres did nothing wrong and that even if he did, he did not cause this young man’s death,” lawyer Daniel Karp told the 10-member panel in his opening statement.

Gray’s parents, Jeffrey Gray and Tanya Thomas, both of Frederick, are seeking $145 million in damages for what they claim was a wrongful death caused by Torres’ use of excessive force. The trial before U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. is expected to last five to seven days.

Torres hit Gray with the device twice after responding to a reported outdoor fight involving three young men in a subdivision just south of Frederick early in the morning of Nov. 18, 2007, according to Frederick Police Department investigators. They found that Torres gave Gray a five-second jolt after the intoxicated, 150-pound young man didn’t respond to commands to lie down and remove his hand from inside the front of his pants. Gray fell to the ground, face down, but witnesses disagree about whether his hands were outstretched or still hidden beneath him.

Plaintiff’s attorney Attorney Gregory L. Lattimer said in his opening statement that Gray’s hands were visible and Torres could have handcuffed him. Instead, Lattimer said, the deputy gave Gray another five-second jolt.

“You simply don’t Tase people under those circumstances,” Lattimer said. “That’s just sadistic.”

Both sides agree that Gray was dead before emergency medical workers arrived.

The state medical examiner’s office concluded it was a “sudden death associated with restraint and alcohol intoxication.” The only method of restraint mentioned in the autopsy report was the stun gun but the medical examiner didn’t specifically identify that device as a contributing factor. The cause of death — such as homicide, suicide, or accidental — was undetermined.

Gray’s blood alcohol level was measured as high as .23 percent, nearly three times the .08 percent that constitutes drunk driving, Karp said. He said the medical examiner will testify about the possibility that binge drinking caused Gray’s heart to beat irregularly. Karp also mentioned another possibility — asphyxiation caused by Gray’s face-down position.

But Lattimer said a preponderance of the evidence would lead the jury to one conclusion: “You’re going to decide that Deputy Torres improperly and inappropriately used force against an individual not for any legitimate law-enforcement purpose, but because he could.”

Torres has retired from the sheriff’s office and now works as a dispatcher in Fairfax County, Va.

Gray’s parents also sued the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office and Frederick County, but those defendants were separated from the case against Torres. Any claims against them will be decided after this trial, Karp said.

Gray was deaf in one ear and hearing-impaired in the other but Lattimer said he won’t focus on that during the trial.

Investigators found that Gray wasn’t wearing his hearing aid that night.

Last year, the U.S. Justice Department advised police officers using stun guns to avoid shooting suspects multiple times or for prolonged periods to reduce the risk of potential injury or death.

The report stemmed from a study of nearly 300 cases in which people died from 1999 to 2005 after police shot them with stun guns, but found that most of the deaths were caused by underlying health problems and other issues. Of those cases, the experts examined 22 in which the use of stun guns was listed as an official cause of death.

Gray’s death and eight others in Maryland linked to stun guns led the state attorney general’s office in 2009 to recommend more stringent training on the use of electric stun guns.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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