Baltimore police officers will not face charges for using a Taser five times on a 19-year-old hospital patient who died in May, city prosecutors said Tuesday.
After interviewing witnesses, reviewing the use of the Taser and studying autopsy results, the Baltimore state's attorney's office concluded George Vonn King Jr. died of "natural causes following a lengthy struggle" with police and staff at MedStar Good Samaritan Hospital.
Prosecutors said King's meningitis led to "extensive destruction" of brain cells that likely contributed to cardiac arrest.
"The autopsy revealed no credible evidence that either the restraint of the decedent by medical personnel or law enforcement, the use of the Taser, or the administration of any of the sedating medications caused or contributed to Mr. King's death," they said in a statement.
An attorney for King's family said he doesn't know how the state's attorney's office could conclude that anything but the repeated use of a Taser and physical blows caused King to die.
"The family is disappointed and we're disappointed in the state's attorney's decision, given their extensive investigation," attorney Granville Templeton III said. "A lot of the witnesses did see Mr. King being beaten by the police officers. One of the police officers hit him multiple times and choked him until he passed out.
"He died right after the last tase so it's clear that tasing caused the death of George King," he said.
A police spokesman said the prosecutors' report and the autopsy make clear that the tasing did not kill King. But City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he wants the Department of Justice to review how the department users Tasers.
"The council president wants to slow things down and take a time out and not have any more reliance on equipment that can administer lethal force until we have a proper review of training procedures," said Lester Davis, Young's spokesman.
The city Police Department has come under growing scrutiny for alleged misconduct and excessive use of force. The city has paid nearly $6 million in court judgments and settlements in more than 100 lawsuits brought since 2011, The Baltimore Sun reported last month.
The Justice Department last week announced a review of the department's use of force. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts are pushing to equip officers with body cameras to record their interactions with the public.
Young held a hearing Tuesday on the cameras.
King, a ward of the state living in a group home, was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital on May 6 after he suffered at least four seizures.
He suffered another seizure in the hospital the next day and was to be moved to intensive care, prosecutors said.
King objected to the move and asked to be released, prosecutors said. They said he became "aggressive, combative and disoriented, possibly because of the medication he had been given."
King removed an IV from his arm, prosecutors said. When a nurse tried to reinsert it, they said, he tried to hit her.
Five security officers tried to restrain King, prosecutors said, but he fought them off.
"All the witnesses at the scene advised that Mr. King was unable to be controlled," they said.
Templeton said it's not unusual for patients to struggle with hospital staff. He said doctors knew King suffered from meningitis, which affects behavior, as do the drugs he was given.
King just wanted an IV out of his arm, Templeton said.
"You have to be able to deal with those issues," he said. "There are easy ways to sedate someone."
A spokeswoman for MedStar Health said privacy laws prevent her from commenting on King's treatment.
"We can say that we are unwavering in our confidence that the care provided in this case was appropriately rendered," spokeswoman Debra Schindler said. "Our heartfelt thoughts and sympathy continue to go out to the family and friends of Mr. King."
Nurses called police nearly an hour after the struggle began, prosecutors said. Officers James Wynne and Thomas Hodas arrived and attempted to calm King, they said, but he remained combative.
They said the officers warned King to stop resisting or he could be tased, and King told them to tase him.
Prosecutors said King took an aggressive step, and Hodas tased him in the chest. King continued to move, they said, so Hodas used his Taser a second time.
Nurses, hospital security and police were able to hold King down long enough to put him on a bed, prosecutors said, but could not put restraints on him.
Hodas used his Taser a third time, this time in "drive-stun" mode, in which the device was placed against King's skin to shock him, prosecutors said. Seeing no result, they said, Hodas tased King three more times over the course of 10 minutes.
Prosecutors said King also tried to bite a nurse, and Wynne struck him several times in response. One witness "reports that Officer Wynne choked Mr. King in a further effort to subdue him," prosecutors said.
A subdued King went into cardiac arrest, prosecutors said. He was resuscitated but remained unconscious and suffered two more seizures. King was on life support until May 12, when he was declared brain dead. A ventilator was disconnected.
Templeton said beating and choking do not appear in any police manuals" as methods to restrain someone.
"If you have witnesses who say they saw police punch and choke someone and it's not an assault, I don't know what an assault is," he said.
Police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk declined to comment on the allegation that Wynne choked King. Kowalczyk said police may strike a violent subject with a reasonable amount of force to gain control.
Prosecutor Elizabeth Embry said her office reviewed whether officers should have struck King. She said King's behavior fell between "aggressive physical" and "aggravated physical" conduct on the police's "use of force continuum."
The categories are the two most extreme forms of resistance.
"In those situations, [Baltimore Police Department] guidelines would permit an officer to strike a suspect who has resisted repeated commands to calm down, but continues to engage in hostile, attacking behavior over an extended period of time that endangers the lives of other individuals in the room, as was the case here," Embry wrote in an email.
She said only one witness out of about 10 hospital staff and security officers said they saw Wynne choke King. She said prosecutors didn't find that choking contributed to King's death.
The Police Department's force investigation team continue to investigate whether Hodas and Wynne followed internal procedures.
Templeton said medical staff should have stopped Hodas, knowing King's medical condition, and that police lack clear policies on when and how Tasers should be used.
"Police should know the condition of someone before they pull out a Taser," he said.
Batts said last year that police were reviewing its guidelines on weapons, including Tasers, but the department's Taser guidelines remain unchanged. Current policies don't limit the number of times a person may be Tased, but they direct officers not to use the devices excessively or without justification.
After King's death, Batts directed police supervisors to evaluate whether to send officers to emergency calls at hospitals. He said it was not clear what Good Samaritan wanted officers to do when they arrived.
Hospitals protested, saying such a policy could endanger staff or patients faced with real threats, and Batts reversed course. Now, Kowalczyk said, supervisors are required only to "monitor" emergency calls from hospitals.
The city's spending panel this month approved $1.1 million to buy more Tasers and equipment. Young, the City Council president, and Comptroller Joan M. Pratt voted against the purchase over concerns about their use.
Davis, Young's spokesman, said Tuesday that King's case "gets to the heart" of why Young objected to the purchase and why he hopes federal officials will help police develop safe guidelines for the use of Tasers.
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.