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Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Texas)

Texas Medical Examiner Rules Young Man's Taser Death by Police a Homicide

Elizabeth Zavala and Mitch Mitchell

A vigil was held for Michael Jacobs Jr. on April 21, a few days after his death in east Fort Worth. The Tarrant County medical examiner ruled Thursday that the death of the mentally ill man who was shocked twice by a Taser stun gun wielded by a Fort Worth police officer was a homicide. STAR-TELEGRAM/KELLEY CHINN

FORT WORTH, Texas - The Tarrant County medical examiner ruled Thursday that the death of a mentally ill man in April who was shocked twice by a Taser stun gun wielded by a Fort Worth police officer was a homicide.

It was the fourth time that a person shocked by a Taser has died in Fort Worth police custody since the department started using the devices in 2001, according to the Police Department.

But the death of Michael Patrick Jacobs Jr., 24, is the first that Medical Examiner Nizam Peerwani has ruled to be a homicide.

Jacobs was pronounced dead about noon April 18, an hour after he was hit by the Taser. His parents had called 911 because he was causing a disturbance at their east Fort Worth home, police have reported.

According to Peerwani's report, an officer shot Jacobs twice with the Taser, once for 49 seconds and another time for five seconds. An autopsy found no drugs, no system abnormalities and no electrolyte imbalances in Jacobs' body, Peerwani wrote.

Jacobs died of "sudden death during neuromuscular incapacitation due to application" of the Taser, Peerwani wrote.

Tasers deliver a 50,000-volt shock that can temporarily immobilize a person.

Fort Worth police have not identified any of the officers present.

Police Chief Jeff Halstead said that with the release of Peerwani's ruling, the department can complete an internal investigation. That report will be turned over to the Tarrant County district attorney's office in anticipation of a grand jury review, Halstead said.

District Attorney Joe Shannon said his office will review reports from police and Peerwani and present a case to a grand jury to determine what, if any, charge the officer might face. The grand jury likely will also hear testimony from witnesses.

Shannon emphasized that the homicide ruling does not necessarily mean that anyone will be charged with a crime.

"The word homicide does not mean crime," he said. "It just means that the death involved another person."

Charges involving death typically range from criminally negligent homicide to murder, but there are many other possibilities, Shannon said.

"There are probably 20 possibilities that could come out of this," Shannon said. "I don't know if it will be any."

Extending condolences

At a hastily called news conference late Thursday afternoon, Halstead said: "First and foremost we wanted to extend our condolences to the family of Michael Jacobs. We know that this has been a very long road for them."

Since Fort Worth police began using Tasers in 2001, officers have discharged the weapon in 1,360 cases, Halstead said. Of those, four people died. In three cases, Peerwani ruled that the deaths were accidental and listed cocaine intoxication as the cause of death. Jacobs' was the first homicide.

Nationwide, several Taser-related deaths have been ruled homicides since the first ruling in Chicago in 2005. In Texas, medical examiners ruled homicides in a Waco case in 2005 and a San Antonio case in 2007.

The Rev. Kyev Tatum, president of the newly formed Fort Worth chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil-rights group, issued a statement late Thursday supporting the medical examiner's ruling. His group is seeking a federal investigation, he said.

"Mr. Jacobs did not have to die and no parent should have to experience the death of a child at the hands of the very officials who have sworn to protect and serve them and the entire community," he wrote in the statement. "Justice should be color blind and social class should not play a role in administering it."

A news conference has been called for noon today at the Jacobs home to "outline our next steps to pursuing justice in this case," the statement said.

Defibrillator difficulties

Family members have said that Jacobs was schizophrenic and had bipolar disorder.

When officers arrived at the Jacobs home that morning, Jacobs would not cooperate with them, and one officer shot him with a Taser when he became combative, police have said. Jacobs fell down face first and was handcuffed. Officers turned him over when he began having trouble breathing and later became unresponsive, according to Peerwani's report.

Paramedics tried unsuccessfully to revive him, according to Peerwani's report.

A MedStar official has said that police initially turned paramedics away but later called them back. The officers had not begun cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Jacobs, according to paramedics.

According to documents obtained by the Star-Telegram, a MedStar paramedic had reported that a defibrillator in the ambulance apparently did not work when paramedics were trying to revive Jacobs. But a MedStar official said that the machine was operational and that the monitor did not register a reading because Jacobs' heart had stopped and because cellphone and radio transmissions at the scene could have interfered with the monitor.

Although law enforcement agencies say Tasers are safe, critics have contended that a Taser can be as deadly as a gun.

Taser International stands by its product as a safe alternative.

"Taser International is always concerned when a death tragically occurs in police custody. While we have not been provided a copy of the medical examiner's report, we continue to stand by the safety of our Taser technology," said Steve Tuttle, Taser International's vice president of communications.

Fort Worth city officials, including the mayor, issued statements Thursday afternoon regarding the incident.

"No matter how it happened, the fact is that the Jacobs family has suffered a tragic loss, and we continue to keep them in our prayers," Mayor Mike Moncrief said in a statement. "Our thoughts are also with our officers who responded to the call for help. I know our Police Department uses some of the most state-of-the-art training and equipment. They work hard to partner with organizations, like MHMR, to ensure their service to the community is both progressive and proactive."

Councilman Frank Moss, who represents the district where the Jacobs family lives, said, "This community will count on [Chief Halstead] to make the adjustments necessary to ensure this doesn't happen in the future."

Staff writers Alex Branch, Martha Deller and Mike Lee contributed to this report.

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