Family seeking autopsy omission after WCDC death

Becky Campbell • Feb 7, 2014 at 9:06 PM

The parents of a city man who died at the Washington County Detention Center after an apparent violent interaction with officers say their son’s autopsy should be stricken from proceedings of a federal civil case they’ve filed against the department.

It’s because of the forensic pathologists’ determination Stewart Peppers’ cause of death was something called excited delirium that his parents have asked a federal judge to keep the official autopsy out of court.

Peppers, 22, died April 29 at Johnson City Medical Center after he’d quit breathing while being restrained at the jail. Sheriff Ed Graybeal said detention officers started CPR as soon as they realized Peppers was unresponsive and not breathing.

Peppers’ parents filed a $20 million lawsuit in July against Graybeal and the officers involved in the altercation with their son. This week, they filed a motion asking the judge to rule the autopsy is inadmissible. The highly-detailed autopsy was filed along with the motion.

It not only details the condition of Peppers’ body — covered with multiple bruises and abrasions — but documents information about his behavior while jailed and the incident that occurred just before his death.

But even with “multiple blunt force injuries” that included contusions, abrasions and a few small lacerations, Dr. Dawn Lajoie, a forensic pathologist at the forensic center in Johnson City, determined those injuries had nothing to do with Peppers’ death. In the report, Lajoie described Peppers as “an athletic male who had engaged in bodybuilding” but denied using steroids. Toxicology findings refute that claim.

Last month, Graybeal and District Attorney General Tony Clark held a news conference to announce the results of the autopsy in which Lajoie ruled the death was accidental and the cause was “excited delirium associated with misuse of nandrolone decanoate (a steroidmore commonly known as Deca-Durabolin), exogenous testosterone (i.e., testosterone not produced naturally by the body) and acute cannabinoid (marijuana).”

The website www.exciteddelirium.org said excited delirium is a syndrome that occurs suddenly and is accompanied by bizarre, aggressive behavior, unexpected physical strength and hyperthermia.

The syndrome first surfaced in regard to deaths associated with abuse of cocaine or PCP, but can be caused by other means, including overuse of steroids.

Excited delirium is not a recognized diagnosis by the American Medical Association or the American Psychiatric Association. That’s why Peppers’ family wants the autopsy and LaJoie’s cause of death determination be ruled inadmissible.

Prior to Peppers’ death, officers had tried to restrain him after he allegedly became violent and started hitting his head against his cell wall. Peppers was shocked with an electronic shocking device, pepper sprayed and physically handled in attempts to restrain him. None of those methods worked, however, until Peppers suddenly stopped moving.

Prior to that incident, he was already on the officers’ radar after some bizarre behavior when he was booked into the jail April 26.

Johnson City police had arrested Peppers on charges of aggravated assault, weapons possession, simple possession of steroids and the manufacturing, sale or delivery of marijuana.

During the process, Peppers would not respond to his name, but called himself “Hercules” and “The Chosen One,” federal court documents said. When he was put into a cell in the booking area by himself, officers said Peppers sounded a “warrior chant” and did push-ups and sit-ups.

In a motion asking a federal judge to rule the autopsy inadmissible, Peppers’ parents point out the forensic pathologist refers to research conducted at the University of Miami by Dr. Deborah Marsh.

“A review of the offered autopsy reveals that Dr. Marsh is neither a forensic pathologist nor a medical doctor,” the motion reads. It goes on to point out that Marsh’s research on excited delirium has not been subjected to any peer review.

Peppers’ parents also point out in the motion that there is an eyewitness to their son’s beating.

Another inmate in the same area of the jail signed an affidavit stating he saw officers beat Peppers for 20 minutes.

“To that end, the plaintiff’s dispute the validity of the autopsy findings of ‘accidental death.’ ”

The county has not filed a response to the motion.

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