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Controversial term keeps finding its way onto autopsy reports of people who die under police officers

An investigation calls into question the use and the potential misuse of the term “excited delirium” after people die underneath or next to law enforcement officers.

Chris Vanderveen

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Published: 6:07 PM MST March 1, 2023
Updated: 7:33 PM MST March 1, 2023

The 2017 death of an Adams County man under a pile of police officers certainly seemed like the kind of case worthy of additional scrutiny.

Twice Alejandro Gutierrez screamed, “I can’t breathe!” before his heart stopped. The only officers who carried body cameras that night turned their cameras on so late they failed to capture anything more than CPR – a decision the local prosecutor called “inexcusable.”

When firefighters arrived on scene, one questioned whether Gutierrez had been hit by a car. “What broke his arm?” he asked.

Every one of the Thornton Police officers on scene initially “refused to make a statement,” according to the local district attorney’s review of the case. Instead, the report stated, they “demanded an opportunity to view all available evidence of the incident” before agreeing to talk.

Credit: KUSA
Alejandro “Alex” Gutierrez died in Adams County, Colorado, in 2017

The officers ultimately relented a month later, but that initial decision, according to the DA review, threatened “to diminish the trust and respect of those citizens that we are privileged and honored to serve.”

And yet, even now, you’ll hardly see or read a mention of Gutierrez’s death anywhere. His daughter believes she knows why.

“Excited delirium,” said Avina De Luna.

“When did you find out about excited delirium?” I asked her.

“When I read it on my father’s autopsy report,” she said.

At that moment, she said, the investigation died, as well. “We still don’t know what truly happened,” she said.

Credit: KUSA
An image of the autopsy report for Alejandro “Alex”Gutierrez that lists “excited delirium” as the cause of death.

A six-month 9NEWS ORIGINALS investigation discovered other instances when the term “excited delirium” appears to have morphed into a de facto dead end for other families. Like the death of Alejandro Gutierrez, these deaths beg for more scrutiny, as well, according to the experts we interviewed.

In all, this investigation has identified 130 deaths since 2010 tied to the controversial term.

Nearly half died after the use of prone – or facedown – restraint. More than half died after receiving a jolt from a stun gun. The cases disproportionately involved Black or Hispanic men. All died within the presence of law enforcement officers or hospital security staff.

The country’s first Black chief pathologist, a medical examiner with more than three decades of experience, said it’s time to retire the term “excited delirium” altogether.

“It should not be used,” said Dr. Joye M. Carter Rush. “The term should be eradicated. It serves as an excuse for excessive, aggressive and prolonged restraint.”

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