A medical expert called by state prosecutors to testify before a grand jury in the investigation of Daniel Prude told jurors that he believed Prude died of a sudden cardiac arrest, and that none of the police officers who arrested him caused his heart to fail.
The testimony of Dr. Gary Vilke, an emergency room doctor in southern California, flew in the face of the findings of the Monroe County medical examiner, who had determined that Prude was suffocated by officers.
Specifically, the medical examiner had found Prude died of “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint due to excited delirium due to acute phencyclidine intoxication,” an indication that Prude was high on PCP.
Vilke, who has a long history of testifying on behalf of police officers charged in cases in which people died in their custody, went further in this testimony to suggest that Prude’s health condition could have been worsened if officers had not restrained him.
“(M)y opinion is that none of the officers, their impact, individually or collectively, would have caused or contributed to that cardiac arrest,” Vilke testified.
“And, to go even one step further, if he had been allowed to get up and run around and sort of, be held in a position of being, you know, moving around in a group of police officers, that would actually be more detrimental than being held down,” Vilke went on. “. . . Being held in this position, even though it restricts his movement and actually, is in some ways, in my mind, protective of him from himself and trying to reduce his acidosis. But, in no way did that position cause ventilatory issues.”
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The specifics of his testimony was buried in some 1,274 pages of transcripts of the grand jury proceedings in the matter of Prude’s death released Friday by state Attorney General Letitia James under order from a state judge that they be unsealed.
The grand jury chose not to indict police officers involved in the March 2020 arrest of Prude, whose death sparked nationwide protests, prompted the collapse of the entire command structure of the Rochester Police Department, and imperiled the political future of Mayor Lovely Warren.
The transcripts cover some 45 hours of proceedings from nine sessions between October 2020 and February 2021.
PRUDE WAS 'REVVING, REVVING, REVVING'
The names of the witnesses, including Vilke and the police officers involved in Prude’s arrest, were redacted from the transcripts. But the identity of some witnesses could be ascertained by the descriptions they offered of their job titles.
In the case of Vilke, who testified by video conference, he described himself as working as an “emergency physician” at the University of California San Diego Medical Center and outlined his extensive credentials in the field of “restraint related deaths.”
The Democrat and Chronicle has previously reported that Vilke has provided testimony in court more than 100 times regarding deaths in police custody over the course of 20 years and that he was hired by the defense to support officers’ version of their stories.
Vilke, whose testimony spanned 66 pages, spoke at length about two controversial concepts that were thought to play a role in Prude’s death: “excited delirium” and “positional asphyxia.”
Excited delirium is an extreme level of agitation characterized by high heart rate, heavy breathing, a high body temperature, and an insensitivity to cold, pain, and fatigue that can be brought on by the use of drugs, including PCP.
Positional asphyxia is defined as a person suffocating as a result of their body being in a particular position, specifically when the person is lying on their chest with pressure being applied to their back.
Vilke testified that the best thing one can do for someone in the throes of excited delirium is to “rapidly or quickly restrain and control” them and sedate them with medication. He likened a person experiencing excited delirium to revving a car without moving.
“It’s revving, it’s running, it’s moving,” he said. “But if you don’t back it off a little bit, it can blow an engine. And, so, these people are revving, revving, revving.”
It was the “revving” and the subsequent build up of lactic acid in Prude’s body, he said, that caused him to go into cardiac arrest and that deaths in these cases are “not position based.”
“The heart just is not able to continue taking that, in a sense, intensity or the abuse of the drugs and the acidosis at the same time, it eventually — it has a sudden event and goes into cardiac arrest,” Vilke said.
“In this case, a PEA arrest, we call it, a pulseless electrical activity, which is common in excited delirium, that PEA arrest caused a cascade of other events, which ultimately lead to the death, you know, days later,” Vilke went on. “But, it's the cardiac arrest from the excited delirium that contributed to his death. The multiple organ failure and death.”
ACCUSATIONS OF A HIRED GUN
The revelations of his testimony in the Prude matter touched off speculation anew by lawyers close to the case that the attorney general turning to Vilke was a calculated measure to sway the opinion of jurors and avoid prosecuting the officers.
“That’s why it’s incredible and unbelievable Letitia James hired Gary Vilke as an expert for the state in this case,” said Elliot Shields, the attorney who formerly represented the Prude family and is currently litigating a federal class action lawsuit against the Rochester Police Department.
“What it shows is that it was not her goal to indict these officers. Her goal was to get them off scot-free,” he said. “ . . . That’s why you hire Gary Vilke, to help the police avoid accountability.”
When James announced in February that the grand jury declined to indict, she called the decision “very, very disappointing,” and said she would seek permission from a judge to make the proceedings public.
RELATED: Prude police officers cleared by grand jury
Grand jury proceedings in New York operate in secret, but state Judge Karen Bailey Turner ruled that the records could and should be released to shine light on the grand jury process and avoid public speculation of what may or may not have occurred behind closed doors.
In releasing the transcripts of the proceedings on Friday, James issued a statement that read in part, “Our efforts to balance the scale of justice and ensure accountability can only go so far in the absence of transparency.”
“We took the unprecedented action of seeking to release the grand jury transcripts because the public deserves to know what happened in these proceedings,” her statement went on. “As I have throughout my career, I will continue to use every tool at my disposal to shine a light in the corners of our system that have been hidden for too long.”
James sought to charge three of the police officers who restrained Prude — Francisco Santiago, Troy Taladay, and Mark Vaughn — with criminally negligent homicide.
Her case may have been complicated by the testimony of the Monroe County medical examiner, in addition to the opinion offered by Vilke.
When prosecutors asked the medical examiner, Dr. Nadia Granger, if Prude died solely from asphyxia, she replied that Prude died “from a complication of the asphyxial event.”
“So, it's everything together as I mentioned,” Granger said shortly after, referring to the officers’ restraint of Prude, the PCP in his system, and his state of excited delirium. “All of the factors are contributing to the death.”
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