As the trial date looms in the lawsuit over the death of James Chasse Jr. in police custody, new court filings provide a sneak preview of the City of Portland's defense strategy.
A flurry of paperwork filed last week in federal court reveals city lawyers plan to rely on several outside experts to argue Chasse was largely at fault in the events surrounding his September 2006 arrest. Perhaps the most shocking claim comes in the city's proposed jury instructions, where city lawyers argue it was Chasse—not the cops—who was negligent in the case.
The first reason given? The 42-year-old schizophrenic man was off his medication.
Some pieces of the city's defense have been revealed in previous filings—including plans to argue Chasse died of a little-understood condition called "excited delirium." But the latest filings provide the most comprehensive look yet at what we're likely to see from both sides during the trial set to begin June 23.
As is common in other high-stakes trials relying on expert witnesses, jurors will be forced to sort through starkly different views about who's responsible for Chasse's demise.
Four doctors hired by the city suggest Chasse died of excited delirium—a state of extreme agitation sometimes used to explain deaths in police custody.
That contradicts a report by Oregon State Medical Examiner Dr. Karen Gunson, who concluded three years ago that Chasse died of blunt-force trauma to the chest. Lawyers for Chasse's family, which is suing the city for an unspecified sum, found their own experts to refute the city's claim.
"Excited delirium is a poorly and variably defined condition, not widely used or accepted in the field of medicine generally or in the specialty of psychiatry specifically," writes Dr. Ronald O'Halloran of Ventura, Calif.
As for the 16 broken ribs Chasse suffered in his struggle with police, Dr. Michael Veverka, a radiologist from Tillamook, suggests Chasse may have had osteoporosis due to poor diet, making his bones easy to break. But the Chasse lawyers found their own radiologist in Portland to refute that theory.
Police approached Chasse in the Pearl District, later saying he was acting suspiciously. When Chasse tried to run, Officer Chris Humphreys took him to the ground and officers struggled to handcuff him. Chasse died in the back of a patrol car on his way to the hospital. Gunson found he suffered 46 contusions caused by kicks or punches, including six to the head and 19 to the torso.
Ken Katsaris, a law enforcement consultant from Tallahassee, Fla., argues for the city that the officers' actions were reasonable and within policy.
"Simply put, Chasse's actions precipitated the police response—a response that should be expected by the police bureau and the public," Katsaris writes.
Lou Reiter, a former Los Angeles police deputy chief hired by the Chasse family, argues the arrest was badly botched. "They confronted James Chasse and unreasonably escalated the encounter," Reiter writes. "Their actions, rather than diffuse [sic] the contact, exacerbated it and created the necessity to resort to the use of force."
Psychiatrists hired by both sides to review Chasse's case history also differ sharply.
Writing for the city, Dr. Ira Glick of Stanford University paints a picture of a chronically ill man abandoned by his family—an "emaciated and bizarre figure" who was "living in fetid squalor."
"I wish he would have been on medicine to avoid this tragedy," Glick writes. "His life was horrific, even compared to others with this disease."
Writing for the Chasse family, Dr. Eric Strachan of the University of Washington says Chasse had support from his family and was largely successful in coping with schizophrenia. Strachan notes Chasse had a fear of police.
"It is therefore a tragic and terrible irony that Mr. Chasse was reportedly chased, tackled and repeatedly struck with sufficient force to break his ribs and then subjected to further painful and humiliating treatment," Strachan writes. "It must have seemed to Mr. Chasse the realization of his worst nightmare."
In a court memorandum March 29, the city claims the Chasse family has "declined reasonable efforts" to settle with the city. In an April 5 filing the family's attorneys call that statement a lie and "an attempt to curry favor with the court and paint the Chasse family as the 'bad guys.'"