GREENFIELD — The electric shock Douglas Wiggington endured from a police Taser moments before he died did not cause his death; it was a drug overdose that killed him, a pathologist ruled.
That finding contradicts the information listed on the Fountaintown man’s death certificate — a clerical error officials say could have weakened their case in court if family members move forward with plans to sue the city. The family’s tort claim — a notice sent in advance of a lawsuit, advising potential defendants of alleged harm — centers on Wiggington being “fatally injured by the use of a Taser weapon.”
The error on the death certificate was brought to the attention of the local coroner’s office by the Daily Reporter.
The pathologist who examined the body of 48-year-old Douglas Wiggington pointed to lethal doses of methamphetamine and cocaine in his system as his cause of death.
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It was the drugs — not the Taser — that killed him, the pathology report states.
Officers came across Wiggington around 6:30 p.m. May 12 after passers-by called 911 about a man they saw stumbling along South State Street in Greenfield.
The man — later identified as Wiggington — was walking and occasionally falling to the ground in the 800 block near the Elks Lodge, where Wiggington had just visited. The caller said he was “obviously intoxicated” and “had either passed out or collapsed,” according to 911 recordings obtained by the Daily Reporter.
Greenfield police Sgt. Rod Vawter and Patrolman Dillon Silver responded to the call for help.
Video of the incident captured by both of the officers’ in-car cameras, as well as a bystander’s cellphone, shows Wiggington lying on his back on the ground in a Greenfield gas station parking lot.
Silver, the first officer on scene, approaches Wiggington and asks if he is OK. Silver also asks Wiggington his name, if he’s taken any drugs or if he’s carrying any weapons.
Wiggington can be heard on the audio recording struggling to answer Silver’s questions, slurring his words.
Silver tries to check Wiggington’s pockets, but Wiggington does not cooperate with Silver’s commands to roll onto his stomach and place his hands behind his back, the video shows.
Vawter, who arrives shortly after Silver, radios to ask that paramedics be sent to the scene.
“He’s in and out of it,” Vawter can be heard telling dispatchers in the video. “We can’t tell if he’s intoxicated.”
Vawter says to Wiggington, “We’re trying to help you,” but the man continues to struggle, kicking his legs and resisting the officers’ attempts to calm him.
“Stop it or we’re going to Tase you,” Vawter shouts. “Stop fighting.”
When Wiggington continues to struggle, Vawter fires his Taser, delivering a five-second shock.
“I’m going to do it again if you don’t listen to me” he says a few seconds later, before firing another blast.
Wiggington’s body stiffens, and he stops moving, at which point Vawter and Silver voice concerns Wiggington is overdosing. They can be seen running for a dose of Narcan — a medication used to counteract an opioid overdose — to use on Wiggington; when that fails, they start CPR, the video shows.
But methamphetamine and cocaine, which Wiggington used that day, records show, are not opioid-based, rendering the Narcan ineffective.
Wiggington was taken to the hospital minutes later, where he was pronounced dead.
The cause of death on Wiggington’s initial death certificate states the man died from “a discharge from a conducted electrical weapon.”
Hancock County Coroner David Stillinger confirmed the correct cause, an overdose, is listed in the pathologist’s report, completed after the man’s autopsy and toxicology screens.
The error was caused by a computer glitch in the software coroners use to log case information, said Deputy Coroner Dan Devoy, who handled the Wiggington investigation for the local coroner’s office.
A revised death certificate, correcting the error, will be submitted to the Indiana Department of Health, Stillinger said.
Wiggington’s current death certificate states four factors led to his demise, including several underlying medical problems. Aside from the Taser shock, long-term heart and lung diseases are included among the causes of death.
“Acute cocaine and methamphetamine intoxication” is listed separately, not as a cause but as a contributing factor.
Wiggington’s actual cause of death is that lethal mix of illegal substances, with contributing factors being the Taser shock along with cardiovascular disease, cardiomyopathy and COPD, the pathologist’s report states.
Pathologists ruled Wiggington’s manner of death undetermined, meaning medical experts could not classify the death as natural, a suicide, a homicide or an accident.
The officers involved in the incident were cleared of any wrongdoing, both professionally and legally.
Looming legal case
Relatives of Wiggington have expressed plans to sue the Greenfield Police Department, saying Wiggington’s civil rights were violated because the officers involved hadn’t trained with the weapon as regularly as the manufacturer suggests.
Wiggington’s family members say they plan to ask a judge to order the city to compensate them for their loss, records show. A dollar amount has not been specified.
And the change to their loved one’s death certificate won’t deter them, said Brittany Raftery, Wiggington’s daughter.
Raftery said she believe the department has to be held responsible for what happened to her father.
“He was alive before he was shot with that Taser,” she said.
Greenfield Police Chief Jeff Rasche, who along with the two officers involved with the incident is named in the notice, declined to comment on whether the issuing of a corrected death certificate will impact the case should it go to court.
Crystal Baker, office manager for the Hancock County Health Department, said all death certificates are filled out electrically, with the duty shared by coroners, medical experts and local funeral directors, before being submitted to the state.
Funeral directors complete the top half of the document, detailing the person’s name, age and address along with information about their family history, occupation and education. Coroners or pathologists complete the second half of the document that lists the cause of death and any contributing factors.
The document is then signed by the funeral director, the coroner or a deputy coroner and the county’s health officer before being submitted to the state health department, Baker said.
Stillinger said he took steps to correct the mistake as soon as it was brought to his attention by the Daily Reporter.
Stillinger said Devoy was surprised to learn about the mistake and apologized for not spotting the error.
Devoy said he and his fellow members of the coroner’s office have started to review all the death records they’ve completed in the last year to ensure the computer program they used didn’t cause the same error on other death certificates. So far, they haven’t found any, he said, and they’ve arranged a meeting with the state health department to get the computer glitch corrected.
Trend of inaccuracy
Death certificates are public records, and the causes of death listed on the documents can help experts track the commonality of diseases or fatal injuries or accidents.
Yet mistakes on death certificates are fairly common nationally, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC surveyed more than 500 doctors in New York City in 2010.
More than half “reported they had identified a cause of death on a death certificate that did not represent the true cause of death,” the report states. Nearly 3 percent of the respondents said they’d corrected an incorrect cause of death when new information became available.
Wiggington’s death certificate was filed a month after he died. Stillinger expects a new report to be issued within a few weeks.
Prosecutors say there was no wrongdoing by police in Wiggington’s death, and an internal investigation found Vawter and Silver followed all department policies.
The internal investigation did reveal irregular department training policies and outdated 13-year-old Tasers, which led department leaders to take action.
Prior to Wiggington’s death, Greenfield hadn’t had a department-wide Taser training session since 2013.
By comparison, the remaining eight police departments in Hancock County followed manufacturer Axon’s guidelines, which call for annual Taser training.
Additionally, Greenfield’s officers were carrying the most outdated Tasers in the county. Their devices were purchased in the early 2000s and hadn’t been replaced since. Every other local department had replaced its Taser in at least the last five years.
Following Wiggington’s death, Rasche — who had been on the job less than six months at the time — ordered every member of the department to immediately retrain with the Taser and overhauled the department’s policies to require annual re-certification. He also asked the Greenfield City Council to allow him to spend nearly $100,000 to purchase every officer a new Taser.
And the department continues to grieve the loss that led to those changes, Rasche said.
“A family has lost a loved one,” he said, “and I’m still heartbroken over that.”