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Police, Death And 'Excited Delirium'


On April 19, 2015, San Antonio police officers were called to the home of Noble and Jennifer Cooper to help deal with their adult son Norman. Norman was having some type of psychotic episode. He was highly excited, pacing back and forth without a shirt, shouting about Jesus and the gospel.

Eleven minutes after police arrived Norman Cooper was hit with the first of nine stun gun charges. Cooper’s heart then stopped and emergency medical techs were unable to restart it.

In the course of an hour, from the time of the family’s call to 911, Norman Cooper was pronounced dead.  An officer at the scene said the cause was “excited delirium.” Later it was found that Norman Cooper did have meth in his system that day.

Excited delirium syndrome is controversial. It’s not recognized by the American Medical Association. But coroners use it as a cause of death and police departments rely on it to explain why some suspects in custody die.

According to an investigation by the Austin American-Statesman, many deaths in Texas police custody attributed to excited delirium are in a medical and legal gray zone.

The American-Statesman investigation into Texas non-shooting deaths of a person in police custody since 2005 reveals that excited delirium as an official cause of death is common in Texas – more than one in six of the 289 such deaths.

In many of the 50 cases, subjects died after violent, extended struggles with police. Fourteen were shocked by Tasers before they died.

Vincent Di Maio, a former San Antonio medical examiner, is one of the biggest defenders of excited delirium.  He literally wrote the book on it. In 2006, he published a widely cited textbook on excited delirium, co-authored with his wife, who is a forensic nurse. 

Doctor Douglas P. Zipes is a nationally recognized cardiologist and an expert on sudden death. He is skeptical of the vague – unscientific – catchall diagnosis of excited delirium. 

Michael Barajas is a reporter for the Texas Observer and has written the article, “Excited. Delirious. Dead. Is excited delirium syndrome a medical phenomenon, or a convenient cover for deaths in police custody?”

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi