Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Federal court jury hears details of Canton, Ohio man’s death

CLEVELAND —

A federal court jury Monday afternoon began hearing the details of Shawn Pirolozzi’s death.

That eight-person jury will decide if Canton police officers used excessive force, which led to the death of Pirolozzi, 31, on June 13, 2005. The case is in U.S. District Judge James S. Gwin’s courtroom.

Troy Pirolozzi filed the lawsuit two years ago on behalf of his late brother’s estate. The suit contends Canton police assaulted Shawn Pirolozzi, firing a Taser and stun gun and hitting him several times.

Police have said that Pirolozzi assaulted one officer and struggled with others, prompting officers — and a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent — to use the Taser and stun gun.

The lawsuit seeks damages in excess of $600,000 from the city and the ATF.

The case centers on a debate over why Shawn Pirolozzi died.

Stark County P.S. Murthy ruled the death a homicide, but listed excited delirium as the cause of Pirolozzi death.

Lawyers for the Pirolozzi family counter that positional asphyxia with compression is the primary cause of death. They contend police officers restrained Pirolozzi and hampered his ability to breathe.

THE EVENTS

Canton police were called to Pirolozzi’s neighborhood in the 2400 block of Fourth Street NW just after 10 p.m. June 13, 2005, after neighbors heard glass breaking.

Pirolozzi broke a second-floor window, then either jumped or fell to the ground. When officers arrived, Pirolozzi was in the street, naked and bleeding. Witnesses told police he had jumped on a passing sports-utility vehicle, and then was struck by a passing car.

Witnesses said that after being struck by the cars, Pirolozzi wandered around until officers arrived. Police and Pirolozzi struggled before officers used a Taser and stun guns. He was taken to Aultman Hospital and pronounced dead a short time later.

Murthy’s office investigated the incident. He didn’t rule the death a homicide until late August 2005. One week later, a Stark County grand jury determined no criminal charges would be filed against police.

TESTIMONY STARTS

The Detroit law firm handling the case for the Pirolozzi family led off with expert witness Dr. Werner Spitz, a forensic pathologist.

Spitz questioned Murthy’s ruling that excited delirium caused Pirolozzi’s death.

“I don’t believe the term excited delirium belongs on this death certificate. The term homicide is warranted,” he said when answering questions from Geoffrey N. Fieger.

While being question by Kristen Bates Aylward, Spitz said he doesn’t believe in a condition called excited delirium. But he does believe that Pirolozzi was excited and delirious the night he died.

When Bates Aylward noted that excited delirium is a condition recognized by pathology groups, Spitz responded: “Well I’m not surprised.”

Bates Aylward sparred with Spitz over testimony he gave in a Summit County case last year when positional asphyxia was cited as the reason a prisoner died in the custody of sheriff’s deputies. Spitz testified the prisoner died because of heart problems.

In rebuttal questions, Fieger noted that several witnesses told police that Pirolozzi wandered around asking police and others for help. Fieger asked if the questions provided any indication to Pirolozzi’s state of mind.

“That he had a normal state of mind. A normal awareness,” Spitz said, adding that Pirolozzi seemed fearful. “I think that was a normal reaction to the type of trauma he was subjected to.”

Dozens of witnesses — including police officers who responded to the call — are expected to testify this week. The case could get to the jury by Friday.

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