A national organisation of coroners is the latest to denounce “excited delirium,” a fictitious medical condition often cited as a cause of death by police in instances of violence from officers against community members.
The National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) announced they would cease recognising the condition this spring.
“NAME does not endorse use of the term ‘excited delirium’ as a cause of death,” Dr Joyce DeJong, the group’s president, told Colorado’s 9News, as part of an investigation from the broadcaster that found the condition had been claimed as a cause of death in 139 incidents since 2010, all but two of which involved deaths after encounters with law enforcement.
The American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association do not recognise excited delirium, characterised by advocates as having symptoms like agitation, imperviousness to pain, sweating, and high body temperature.
“Excited delirium is often used when there’s a death associated with a physical altercation between a citizen and law enforcement," Dr Roger A Mitchell Jr, chair of the pathology department at Howard University, told The Associated Press earlier this year. “It’s not a real explanation for the death."
That hasn’t stopped police departments around the country from training officers about excited delirium – or from claiming the condition justifies civilian deaths.
At the 2021 murder trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the defence argued that the police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for nine minutes until he lost consciousness was justified because the Minnesota man was showing signs of excited delirium.
Prosecutors, meanwhile, argued the justification didn’t hold water, calling excited delirium a “story” meant to shift blame.
“Mr Floyd didn’t even have a pulse. That didn’t justify keeping your knee on his neck when you should have been administering CPR, when you could have brought him back to life again because you’re afraid that he would come to, with no pulse and rampage the city,” prosecutor Jerry Blackwell said in his closing arguments. “That’s the sort of thing you see in Halloween movies, ladies and gentlemen. Not in real life.”
Similarly, police in Aurora, Colorado, claimed that the 2019 killing of Elijah McClain was justified because of excited delirium.
McClain, 23, was choked with a hold that has since been banned after someone called 911 because the man was wearing a ski mask and waving his arms.
At the time of his arrest, he was wearing the ski mask, his family said, to stop the anaemic 23-year-old from getting chills. McClain had headphones in and didn’t respond to calls from police, who put him in a cartoid chokehold. He cried, vomited, and asked police to respect his boundaries.
Colorado officials later ruled that McClain died because he was injected with ketamine by paramedics who arrived on the scene.