British Columbia

Death linked to 'excited delirium': coroner

The death of a man who was stunned with a Taser several times during his arrest two year ago in Chilliwack was not the fault of police actions, a coroner's inquest has determined.

The death of a man who was stunned with a Taser several times during his arrest two year ago in Chilliwack was not the fault of police actions, a coroner's inquest has determined.

In his report, coroner Vincent Stancato concludes that Robert Knipstrom, 36, died from acute ecstasy intoxication and excited delirium.

A coroner's inquest into Knipstrom's death began Monday and the conclusions were released Thursday night. 

The jury has recommended police and paramedics change how they handle cases where individuals show symptoms of excited delirium, which can include paranoia, agitation, aggression and extraordinary strength. It was also recommended that police request an advanced life support team when dealing with such patients.

RCMP spokesman Sgt. Peter Thiessen welcomed the jury's findings.

"It validates in the officers' minds — it certainly validates in my mind — what was it that they were dealing with in the first instance," Thiessen said.

Rental shop takedown

The incident that led to Knipstrom's arrest took place at a Chilliwack rental shop on Nov. 19, 2007, where he had gone to return a wood chipper. After clipping another car in the parking lot, Knipstrom entered the store and began acting strangely, the inquest heard.

Knipstrom aggressively confronted the police officers who were called in by staff at the shop, located east of Vancouver. The inquest was told that police used pepper spray, a metal baton and finally a Taser to subdue and restrain him.

The only contradictory evidence came from a former store employee who said Knipstrom was backing away from the first police officer at the time of his arrest, while other witnesses said it was the officer who was retreating.

The same witness said he thought the officer struck Knipstrom in the head deliberately with his baton, but the officer testified any blows that hit Knipstrom's head would have glanced off his body first.

Witnesses testified that after Knipstrom was taken down he continued to thrash around on the ground and resist officers. He was eventually loaded into an ambulance face down — a violation of policy — because he refused to turn over.

Knipstrom's heart stopped beating a short time later, and while doctors managed to resuscitate him, he never recovered and died five days later in Surrey Memorial Hospital.

Death blamed on drugs and delirium

It was later determined that Knipstrom had acute levels of the illegal drug ecstasy in his system.

Excited delirium has been blamed for a number of deaths in police custody and critics have dismissed the that conclusion as a way to excuse overly aggressive police actions.

But Dr. Christine Hall, an emergency medicine specialist, said Knipstrom was a textbook example of the condition: high, strong as an ox, and impervious to pain.

Hall said the condition is real and medical understanding of it is evolving.

"The controversy and the evolution has actually occurred in other illnesses — sudden infant death syndrome for example," said Hall.

"For years and years there was a huge debate about does this exist. Is it really a syndrome? What are the symptoms? Why is it only happening that children are dying? And now we know that medical textbooks and lists of diagnoses have evolved to include that," said Hall.

(With files from The Canadian Press)