Another death after police deploy a Taser but autopsy puts blame on something else

Eight months ago, a Coral Gables police officer used a Taser stun gun to corral an agitated 38-year-old pest exterminator named Aviel Gutierrez – who was in the middle of the street stripping his girlfriend naked while trying to “cleanse her of evil spirits.”

The ubiquitous police weapon was not to blame for his death, according to a newly released autopsy.

Instead, the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office ruled that Aviel Gutierrez died of a rare brain disorder fueled by cocaine and a potent mix of synthetic drugs sometimes known as “bath salts.” Gutierrez succumbed to “drug induced excited delirium,” which researchers say often turns victims into feverish, raging attackers with elevated body temperatures.

His was the latest in a string of deaths of people in Miami-Dade shot by police Tasers over the past decade – in only one case have pathologists blamed the weapon designed to be a less-than-lethal alternative for police in stopping violent suspects. Critics contend that “excited delirium” is built on shaky medical research, a way to cover for overaggressive police tactics.

Gutierrez died in December, although his death received no publicity until a Miami Herald story in June. His family has repeatedly declined to comment. “I have nothing to say,” his father, Efrain Gutierrez, said on Thursday.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office is still conducting an investigation to determine if the Coral Gables officer acted lawfully.

Aviel Gutierrez was a father of three who was estranged from his wife. On Dec. 4, he was involved in a row with his girlfriend outside Big Game Liquors on Dec. 4.

Coral Gables Police Officer Hector Diaz, on routine patrol, came across Gutierrez “acting aggressive,” grabbing his girlfriend by the arms, stripping her clothes and throwing her belongings on the road while trying to “cleanse her from evil spirits,” a law-enforcement source told the Herald.

Diaz shot Gutierrez with the stun gun; the man remained “agitated and combative” after being handcuffed, but later collapsed and died at Coral Gables Hospital.

A toxicology report released this week shows Gutierrez’s blood tested positive for cocaine, marijuana and a variety of “synthetic cathinones,” as well as pain killers and anti-anxiety medication.

Gutierrez died amid increased attention on police officers’ use of force in fatal confrontations across the United States. In the most visible Taser-related South Florida case, Miami-Dade’s Medical Examiner’s Office ruled that a Miami Beach police stun gun caused the death of graffiti artist Israel Hernandez-Llach in 2013; his family is suing the department.

In Miami-Dade, however, most Taser-related deaths have been ruled to be caused by excited delirium, a condition first identified here during the crack-cocaine epidemic in the 1980s. Researchers describe it as a genetic abnormality of the brain that might never reveal itself without the triggering mechanism of stress, mental illness or chronic abuse of drugs.

The disorder, however, has its detractors who dub it “junk science.”

“The data supporting it is tenuous. I think excited delirium is often used as a catch-all to explain in-custody deaths,” Indiana University cardiologist Dr. Douglas Zipes, who testified for people suing Taser, told the Miami Herald in 2013.