Charges Weighed in Epileptic’s Death

On Behalf of | May 27, 2010 | Personal Injury

By Eric Ferkenhoff
Chicago Tribune Staff Writer

HANOVER PARK – There is little dispute that in the minutes before Eric Stetter died, he was pinned face down on a couch under several Hanover Park police officers and paramedics fighting to cuff his hands and legs.

What is in question is whether Stetter, diagnosed in 1994 with epilepsy, was suffering a seizure early last Oct. 9, or was lashing out in a bizarre rage in the basement of his parents’ home.

More important is whether excessive force was used to restrain him-a matter the DuPage County state’s attorney’s office is studying as it decides whether any of the eight police officers, including a state trooper, and five paramedics should be held criminally responsible for Stetter’s death.

Michael Wolfe, chief of criminal prosecutions for DuPage, refused Monday to discuss specifics of the case, which has been ruled a homicide by the Cook County medical examiner’s office. Wolfe, who has reviewed the case, said a decision likely will be made soon.

In making his decision, Wolfe will have to sort through glaring differences in the accounts of what happened that morning.

One version is found in notes obtained by the Tribune of police interviews with the officers and paramedics. They describe how Stetter’s parents pleaded for police and medical help to control their 26-year-old son, who was 6 foot 2 and weighed 235 pounds. The interviews describe a man acting wildly, shoving his mother and trying to gulp pennies from a cup as he paced nearly nude around the basement, wailing loudly.

The other version, told in a federal lawsuit filed by Stetter’s family, tells of an epileptic gripped by a seizure and tackled by police and paramedics who either disregarded his medical condition or lacked the training to recognize and handle it.

To bring criminal charges, prosecutors would have to find that the officers and paramedics intentionally, recklessly or negligently caused Stetter’s death or created a strong probability of great bodily harm or death. They would also have to prove the force used to restrain Stetter was excessive or unjustified.

David Kupets, a lawyer for the Stetters, said the state’s attorney’s decision will have no effect on the lawsuit. The burden of proof, he said, is much lower in a civil case.

“Either the police handled the situation wrong or they didn’t care, and just went in and decided they were going to do it their way,” he said. “And I would think that it might be both.”

Hanover Park Police Chief Ronald Moser on Monday defended his officers’ actions. “Clearly, I feel the officers acted absolutely appropriately, given the circumstances, that they had to take action to restrain Mr. Stetter.”

Moser declined to discuss whether his department believes Stetter was having a seizure, and if so, whether his officers were adequately trained to handle such a medical crisis.

But Russell Hartigan, the village’s attorney, raised the question in a court filing last month, saying the village would demand “strict proof” of a seizure as the suit moves forward.

That may be impossible, said Steven Schachter, associate professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School and chairman of the professional advisory board for the Epilepsy Foundation of America.

Cook County Chief Medical Examiner Edmund Donoghue, who did Stetter’s autopsy, said he was unaware at the time of the autopsy of allegations that Stetter was having a seizure when he died. Even if he had, Schachter said there are no tests that show conclusively whether a seizure occurred.

It would be especially difficult to confirm a complex partial seizure, the type Stetter’s parents say he suffered the day he died.

Unlike full seizures, which often involve convulsions, complex partial seizures-the most common but also the most misunderstood, experts say-often cause people to become confused and agitated, unable to interact meaningfully with people or their surroundings.

Stetter’s lawyers say this is exactly what happened Oct. 9, and they note that the police reports described Stetter as wild and disoriented. One report described his behavior as “that of a pinball after it struck a bumper.”

Tapes of the dispatches to police officers and paramedics also make mention of drugs as a possible explanation for Stetter’s behavior.

Drugs, however, were a question early on. In a tape of the 911 call Stetter’s mother, Gisela, made about 6 a.m., she first explained to the dispatcher that her son was an epileptic, but quickly added that he was acting “wild,” and may have taken drugs.

Noting that toxicology tests found no traces of substance abuse, Kupets said, “If it wasn’t a seizure, What are they saying was happening there?”

Dennis DeCaro, another lawyer for the family, said whether or not the family thought drugs were ” involved initially should not have mattered. The fact they may have mistaken Stetter’s behavior, he added, speaks to ill-preparedness of the police and paramedics to handle the situation.

In the suit, the lawyers accuse the village of having no policy for its police and fire officials to deal with, people suffering seizures. Without one, they claim, the village has a “de facto” policy of treating people in the throes of seizure much the same as criminals acting disorderly or violently.

The issue of training may have little bearing on Wolfe’s decision, but it is an area in which police departments across the country have fallen short, according to epilepsy experts and advocates.

Such training is a small part of the police academy. Individual departments may also provide in-service training.

The Epilepsy Foundation, which put out a short training program several years ago with a national police group, monitors cases like Stetter’s and has been pushing for more training by the nation’s police departments.

“On a general basis, police departments are poorly equipped to deal with this sort of situation,” said EFA spokesman Peter Van Haverbeke.

The foundation’s Chicago chapter is working with Lorenzo Clemons, director of governmental affairs for the Cook County Sheriffs Department, to gauge Lorenzo Clemons, director of governmental affairs for the Cook County Sheriffs Department, to gauge police training in the area and help them more easily spot and handle people suffering seizures.

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