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Death of man stunned by Florida police last year continues to mystify

By Arelis R. Hernandez, The Orlando Sentinel –

ORLANDO, Fla. — Adam Johnson is one of seven men who died after being shocked by stun guns wielded by Orange County law enforcement in the past decade, but his death is the most puzzling.

Unlike the others, the 33-year-old Winter Haven man had no drugs in his system, no criminal record, no history of mental illness and was never known to be violent.

But on the day he died, witnesses said Johnson was behaving so erratically that it provoked off-duty Orlando police officers at Universal Studios’ CityWalk to shoot two metal probes into his back that sent thousands of volts of electricity pulsing through his body.

Johnson’s fiancee and family are still seeking answers about what caused the man they describe as a lovable introvert to have an altercation with police that left him dead.

Conductive-energy devices — or CEDs — such as Tasers are used by more than 7,000 law-enforcement agencies across the country. Their use has long been controversial.

Research on the safety of CEDs varies depending on who pays for the studies. Generally, the electricity generated by the CED alone is not enough to cause death, according to most studies.

But recent research by Indiana University School of Medicine cardiologist Douglas Zipes found that a shock delivered to the chest can disrupt the heart’s rhythm and cause a loss of consciousness. His research was published this year in the American Heart Association’s Circulation journal.

CED use increases the severity and probability of injury for citizens — and decreases it for law enforcement, according to a study by University of Central Florida criminal-justice researcher Eugene Paoline.

“Evidence is clear that when used as they are supposed to be, [CEDs] are very effective and very safe,” said Dennis McBride, executive director of the Washington-based Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. “Before we had stun guns, the service revolver was the next option.”

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San Marcos, Texas, Police Chief Howard Williams said stun guns provoke such passionate reaction because watching someone writhe from electricity is reprehensible to most people.

“When people see these other people being Tased and struggle, it’s ugly,” Williams said, adding that the same thing happened when pepper spray was first used. “People are repulsed by it and, honestly, that’s OK.”

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Federal investigators urged tighter restrictions for the Orange County Sheriff’s Office in 2007 after reviewing several cases, including deaths.

Johnson’s death is unique because it is one the few in the country to have CED linked as a fatal factor.

Other contributing factors listed by the Orange-Osceola Medical Examiner’s Office were an enlarged heart, obesity, “excited delirium” and the restraints police used on him.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement reviewed his death and determined the four officers involved shouldn’t face charges.

Orlando police would not comment for this report.

On April 22, 2011, Johnson was going to the midnight showing of “Scream 4” with a friend and, witnesses said, he began to behave strangely, flail his arms and grab theme-park employees.

He was yelling bizarre things, pacing and grabbing at his beard, according to the police report. But he wasn’t hurting anyone, Johnson’s family contends.

Universal security and off-duty Orlando police officers working for the theme park tried to calm Johnson down, but he became aggressive, forcing Officer Edward Michael to deploy his Taser, they told investigators.

The first shock lasted 31 seconds and sent Johnson to the ground. But he still resisted, police said. They shocked four times in total, according to the state police.

Officer Nahoum Daniel said that, because of Johnson’s “brute strength,” they used two sets of handcuffs. They also tied his legs together while they sat on top of him.

“The subject resisted for a while, and then all of a sudden everything stopped,” Daniel told investigators. He went from “a thousand miles an hour to nothing.”

Johnson had turned blue, and officers tried to resuscitate him, but he died at the hospital.

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