Police custody death ruled homicide

August 13, 2013 • Local News

Jessica Palmer
Record Staff Writer

The Office of Medical Investigation in Albuquerque released the autopsy report on Cody Towler, 34, Friday. Their final conclusions were that the manner of death was a homicide.
The legal definition of homicide is death of a human being at the hands of another human being. Many use homicide meaning murder, but it could also include voluntary and involuntary manslaughter. Towler was pronounced dead on Feb. 5. According to the Roswell Police Department releases at the time, the public liaison officer reported an in-custody death after officers were dispatched to the 1600 block South Union Avenue around 2 a.m. for a disorderly subject call. The incident report states the officers made contact with Towler around 2:20 a.m. By 3 a.m. Towler was dead.
RPD spokeswoman Sabrina Morales said that when officials arrived at the scene, Towler was beating on a trash can with a baton and resisted attempts to arrest him.
“The officers managed to detain him and he collapsed,” said Morales.
The autopsy lists under “How injuries occurred: Physical and electrical restraint while intoxicated” while the cause of death was “excited delirium complicated by physical and electrical restraints.”
Many experts question the diagnosis of excited delivery. As late as 2012, The St. Louis Law Journal states: “Currently, Excited Delirium Syndrome is not a diagnosis recognized by the American Medical Association or found in the leading diagnostic [auth] manuals.” The American Civil Liberties Union contends the diagnosis only appears in forensic examinations where the police are involved.
The body was sent to the Office of Medical Investigators in Albuquerque for autopsy. It has taken eight months for the OMI to release its results. When asked about the delay, OMI said they were waiting on the toxicology test results. However, the final toxicology report contained within the autopsy is dated Feb. 17, 2013.
Standard procedures for investigation of an in-custody death requires a combined law enforcement taskforce to avoid bias. In Roswell, the taskforce included the New Mexico State Police, the Chaves County Sheriff’s Office and the RPD. At the time, both the CCSO and NMSP stated that the RPD was taking lead, and they would help if asked. According to the police, the officers involved in the incident were placed on paid administrative leave. The incident report lists them as Dylan Thomas, Jorge Orio-Jaime, J. Kelton and Anthony R. Armijo. The officers returned to duty within two days.
The autopsy revealed “blunt force injuries including abrasions (skin scrapes) and contusions (bruises) of the face, right arm, left hand and legs. There was a small amount of bleeding around the brain and bleeding into the deep scalp. The top of the right shoulder had a patterned contusion which corresponded to the top of the boots worn by law enforcement. A total of four Taser prongs were identified at the time of autopsy. … There was a semi-circumferential abraded contusion on the left wrist, consistent with handcuffs, and a puncture mark on the left chest consistent with injury from an electronic control device.”
In addition, the report notes a number of abrasions to the forehead, right side of the head, on the chin and nose. Each area defined was described as having multiple abrasions, except the forehead where OMI noted the presence of 5 lacerations, with two hemorrhages to the scalp, along with subarachnoid (spider-like) hemorrhages in the cerebrum, the frontal or thinking portion of the brain.
The examination of the torso revealed a total of at least five injuries, including a bruise below the belt and intercostal (between the ribs) hemorrhages. The report describes multiple injuries to the right shoulder and arm. The left shoulder also had “multiple abrasions,” as did the hands.
Taser International issued the following warning to users of their product. “When possible, avoid targeting the frontal chest area near the heart to reduce the risk of potential serious injury or death. … Serious complications could also arise in those with impaired heart function.” The autopsy notes that Towler had atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, with up to 75 percent narrowing of the coronary artery, but police would not have been aware of any medical condition.
In the OMI Opinion portion of the report, or summary, the investigator said that three officers discharged their tasers. Taser International advises law enforcement to: “Minimize the number and duration of CEW (conducted energy weapon) exposures. Most human CEW lab testing has not exceeded 15 seconds of CEW application, and none has exceeded 45 seconds. Use the shortest duration of CEW exposure objectively reasonable to accomplish lawful objectives.” It also states that law enforcement should “avoid simultaneous CEW exposures. Do not use multiple CEWs or multiple completed circuits at the same time without justification. Multiple CEWs or multiple completed circuits at the same time could have cumulative effects and result in increased risks.”
The toxicology report showed the presence of methamphetamine and amphetamines, a byproduct of meth breakdown within the body, and cannabinoids.
Meanwhile the Taser Users Manual states: “Loss of control or startle may increase risk of death or serious injury resulting from loss of balance, fall, or change in momentum. … Especially at risk is a person who is … under the influence of alcohol or drugs.”
It also revealed many prescription drugs. The screen was thorough. Towler also tested positive for caffeine, nicotine and cotonine found in cigarettes, and theobromine found in tea and cocoa.
Roswell Police Chief Al Solis said he had not reviewed the findings yet and could not comment because of possible litigation.

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