A federal jury today found that Honolulu police officers did not use excessive force against Sheldon Haleck, who died after being pepper sprayed and shot with a Taser stun gun multiple times on South King Street in front of Iolani Palace.
Haleck was on methamphetamine when he was found walking through traffic on the night of March 16, 2015. Officers pepper sprayed him about a dozen times and tried using a Taser on him three times, all within a span of about five minutes, as they tried to get him to move to the sidewalk.
After falling to the ground and being cuffed by officers, Haleck, who was 38-years-old at the time, became unresponsive and stopped breathing. He was declared dead the next morning at The Queen’s Medical Center.
The civil suit was brought by Haleck’s family against officers Christopher Chung, Samantha Critchlow and Stephen Kardash. Attorneys for the plaintiffs had asked that $3 million in damages be awarded to Haleck’s family, which would have been covered by the city, according to the police union.
Such cases rarely go to trial, but this time the City of Honolulu chose not to settle.
During the trial that lasted a week and a half, the police officers testified that Haleck didn’t seem to be affected by the pepper spray, which is why officers continued to spray him. They also questioned whether the Taser actually worked on Haleck, who didn’t appear to become immobilized when it was deployed.
City attorneys also called on expert witnesses who testified that Haleck died of “excited delirium,” not the actions of the officers that night. The controversial syndrome, which some medical doctors doubt exists, has been cited in dozens of deaths across the country involving struggles with law enforcement, and some argue it’s been used to cover up the use of excessive force.
By contrast, Haleck’s autopsy report attributes Haleck’s death to a physical altercation with police while being acutely intoxicated with methamphetamine.
Three of the expert witnesses called by city attorneys had ties to Axon Enterprise, formerly known as Taser International, which manufactured the Taser used on Haleck the night of his death.
This includes Mark Kroll, an expert in biomedical electricity, who testified that the Taser did not appear to work on Haleck. Kroll was paid $350,000 by Axon last year, owns $1 million in company stock and sold $375,000 in company stock last year, attorneys for Haleck’s family pointed out during the trial. Kroll is also chairman of Axon’s litigation committee.
Officers testified that Haleck wasn’t aggressive toward them, but kept moving away as they tried to get him to move to the sidewalk. They said they feared for Haleck’s safety as well as their own as they struggled to get him out of the five-lane street where any of them could be hit by traffic.
The plaintiffs, however, argued that the actions of police officers did not comply with standards for use of force and that the traffic was largely stopped when the officers came on the scene. They also argued that use of pepper spray and a Taser on Haleck repeatedly within five minutes was particularly dangerous given that officers suspected he was on drugs and mentally impaired.
The emergency room doctor who treated Haleck that night testified that she removed two Taser darts from Haleck’s back, casting doubt on the defense’s argument that the stun gun hadn’t actually shocked Haleck.