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Death ruling sparks outrage

Activists and family of arrested man ask, Where's the accident?
by: JAMIE MARQUEZ, Police prepare to take into custody James Chasse Jr. on Sept. 17 near Northwest 13th Avenue and Everett Street; Chasse died a short time later, and the medical examiner ruled his death “accidental.” A lawyer for his family and observers decry the finding.

In the wake of the death of James Chasse Jr. following an altercation with police that sparked allegations of police brutality, Oregon State Medical Examiner Karin Gunson issued a finding that his death - though caused by a 'broad-based blunt force trauma to his chest' - was 'accidental.'

Given the continuing controversy, rather than settling the questions about the death, the finding has only shifted the focus for many observers - to Gunson herself.

'It's a joke. It's laughable,' said Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland, who attended Northwest Portland's Metropolitan Learning Center with Chasse. 'What person could think of being hit in the chest to death as an accident?'

Gunson said the criticisms reflect a lack of understanding of her job and the laws she must follow. 'We put down on the death certificate what is medically prudent. It has nothing to do with the police. I could care less what the police think,' she said. 'What comes out of the M.E.'s office is what is medically proven and what is medical fact. It has nothing to do with the politics.'

State Sen. Avel Gordly, I-Portland, however, said she shares the concerns over Chasse's death, and has asked Mayor Tom Potter to join her in calling for a public inquest.

Chasse's death dominated the local news last week. At 5:20 p.m. Sept. 17, officers contacted the 42-year-old man near the corner of Northwest 13th Avenue and Everett Street, where, they said, he appeared to be publicly urinating.

According to police, Chasse ran from them and then resisted arrest, leading to an altercation and multiple uses of a Taser. Police say the Taser had no effect, and that Chasse bit one officer and tried to bite another.

According to three eyewitnesses who have filed complaints with the Independent Police Review office, police officers, in addition to Tasering him, punched and kicked Chasse until he appeared to be unconscious.

Responding to a call from police, paramedics arrived and approved his transport to jail, but upon his arrival there a Multnomah County corrections nurse said he needed medical attention. Chasse died on the way to Portland Adventist Hospital.

Chasse's body was transported to the Oregon State medical examiner's office, which, similar to the role of coroners in other states, is charged with certifying 'the cause and manner of a death requiring investigation.'

According to a news release issued by the Portland Police Bureau, testing found no evidence of drugs in the dead man's blood.

Under Oregon law, the manner of death selected by the M.E.'s office may include 'natural, accidental, suicidal, homicidal, legal intervention or undetermined.' The law defines 'legal intervention' as the 'legal use of force' by law enforcement officers, 'resulting in death.'

Gunson said the officers obviously did not mean to kill Chasse. If a death was, for instance, the result of 'injuries from someone tackling him or something like that,' then it was accidental, she said.

The finding, she added, 'is for the death certificate, and it's medical issue-only - it has nothing to do with what happens in court. For instance, when someone is dead from a drunk driver, we'll call that an accident, and that person gets manslaughter.'

But the attorney for the Chasse family, civil rights lawyer Tom Steenson, argued that the M.E. did not have sufficient information to make the determination. At press time, a criminal investigation of the death was ongoing, and had not yet been submitted to a grand jury.

'She's making assumptions is what she's doing. … I think it would have been just as out of bounds to say they had intended the death,' Steenson said.

Officers go mute with public

On the other hand, he said Gunson's finding would not adversely affect any lawsuit against the city. 'The blunt trauma was clearly force inflicted by police,' Steenson said, 'and although they may not have intended the death they certainly intended to use the force they used.

'As far as our investigation to date can explain, there was no basis to essentially assault Jim and smash him to the pavement, kick him, strike him with fists, Taser him four times, hogtie him and then, as I understand it, not divulge to the medical people the extent or nature of the force that has been used,' he said. 'Instead of taking him to a hospital they took him to jail.'

Steenson echoed the comments made by Renaud and another old friend of Chasse's, Morgan Miller, who described him as schizophrenic, but gentle. Miller said that he's been naturally engaging and kind, but turned inward after a stint at the now-defunct Dammasch State Hospital.

According to Chasse's Oregon ID, he stood 5'11' and weighed 161 pounds. Steenson, however, said he understands that at the time of his death, Chasse weighed closer to 130 pounds.

Other than a shoplifting case in 1979, Chasse's criminal record included one instance of alleged trespassing, in 1994. He also was placed into involuntary care for mental reasons by police in 1990.

Because of the ongoing investigation, the officers involved in the incident are under a gag order and have not made public their side of the story. 'We are confident in our officers and believe they will be vindicated through the review process,' said a news release issued by the Portland Police Association.

Some see too cozy a link

A division of the Oregon State Police, the medical examiner's office is one of only a handful in the country that is funded by law enforcement.

Critics in the past have accused Gunson's office of going beyond provable scientific fact in its findings.

For instance, Dan Handelman of Portland Copwatch cited a case in 1998, when Stephen Dons died while in custody after being found with a sheet wrapped around his neck. Instead of ruling the cause of death as simply 'asphyxiation,' the M.E's office deemed it 'suicide.'

In March, following the death of Timothy Grant after being Tasered by Portland police, two former employees of the medical examiner's office told the Portland Tribune that in their opinion, the relationship between the M.E. and law enforcement was a bit too close.

One, Glenn Rudner, a forensic pathologist who was fired from the office in 2004, said the office is under pressure from law enforcement not to issue rulings that could increase liability and lead to a monetary award against the police. In 2005, a jury threw out Rudner's wrongful-discharge lawsuit against Gunson.

Gunson, however, dismissed Rudner's comments as those of a 'disgruntled former employee,' and noted that a judge had found his allegations not credible.

As for her office's relation with the state police, she said, 'I hear from them once every month or so when they call and say, 'How are things going?' I mean, it's like I don't even see them. … That's just ridiculous. I don't know what we've done to have people think this.

Jacob Quinn Sanders contributed to this story.

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