Attorney for Family of Taser Victim Says He Plans to File a Federal Civil Rights Suit

Earlier this week, the Yolo County Coroner released an autopsy report that found the cause of the death of 30-year-old Michael Barrera, who died February 8 following a confrontation with Woodland police, was “sudden death with methamphetamine intoxication during restraint by law enforcement.”

But, the “manner of death was classified as UNDETERMINED.”  They could not determine whether the death was an accident or homicide.

The Vanguard spoke on Thursday with long-time Sacramento Civil Rights Attorney Stewart Katz, who specializes in police use-of-force cases.  He was surprised by the vagueness of the report and told the Vanguard there is nothing in this report that will convince him not to proceed with a federal civil rights lawsuit.

“Clearly we’re not getting many answers from this report,” he said.  “There is nothing in this report that’s inconsistent with the family’s version of events.  To me at least, it raises rather than lessens any suspicions about the fact that, but for the law enforcement actions, he wouldn’t be dead.”

Stewart Katz found the lack of finding on the manner of death to be meaningful.

Again, the coroner concludes that Forensic Pathologist Brian M. Nagao, MD, “determined the cause of death to be sudden death with methamphetamine intoxication during restraint by law enforcement.”

According to Dr. Nagao, “There is a possibility that the decedent could have died with the quantitated level of methamphetamine in his blood without getting into an altercation with law enforcement.”

However, Dr. Nagao stated that he “cannot determine if the physical contact pathologically caused or contributed to the death, but we cannot exclude the restraint which was the actions of another. No obvious fatal injuries were observed during the postmortem examination.”

Mr. Katz told the Vanguard that he “expected a little more specificity as to what exactly the restraints and the tasering consisted of.”

The autopsy noted, “Two needle-sized punctures with darkened skin edges were observed on the left flank and left hip. These punctures appeared consistent with taser deployment.”

It noted contusions on the wrists “consistent with the decedent having been handcuffed prior.”

Mr. Katz said, “Other than stating he had been handcuffed, it did not say what the restraints consisted of.”

He also noted that it was not clear what the confrontation consisted of.  The autopsy noted, “The decedent was reported to have been swinging a golf club at some point and had a physical altercation with Woodland Police Department.”

Mr. Katz said, “I don’t know what the cause of death was, but it’s also consistent with a cover up in terms of the coroner’s report.”

He noted that they did not specify how long he was in restraints or what the restraints were, but he said that “clearly they were able to restrain him.”

The report notes that, during the altercation, Mr. Barrera was Tased.  He became unresponsive and “[t]he decedent was transported to the hospital with CPR in progress. CPR had occurred out in the field for approximately 30 minutes prior to the decedent’s arrival to the emergency department.”

The report found his methamphetamine level as being that of 1800 ng/mL.  Generally speaking, anything over 1000 ng/mL is considered a lethal dose, and that can vary depending on drug history.  Several sources told the Vanguard they would be surprised if that level of meth would be fatal to an apparent habitual user.

Stewart Katz said, “Habitual users have greater tolerance…  Habitual users have much higher levels.

“There is nothing in this report that would not, frankly, cause me to say gee-whiz, do I think there’s a legitimate lawsuit here and a lot of unanswered questions,” he said.  He said he was planning to file a government claim and a federal civil rights lawsuit.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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