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Inquest Is Told Man Died From Police Restraint, Not Pepper-Spray
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
May 1, 2003

HAMILTON, NEW ZEALAND--An inquest into Russell Hamilton's death ended Thursday as Coroner Gordon Matenga weighed whether police are to blame for how the 32-year-old man died, the New Zealand News reported.

On the afternoon of July 11, 2001, Russell Hamilton stood at the driveway of his residential center and asked a 10-year-old newspaper carrier for her address. The girl gave it to Hamilton, but then changed her mind and asked for it back.

Hamilton, who was described as having an intellectual disability, reportedly got agitated. He went inside the facility and broke a window, then to a neighbor's house and pushed over a letterbox, then headed on down the street. Staff at his home called police who found Hamilton a short distance away. They followed him back home while he made verbal threats to police and passersby.

"He was throwing his arms about . . . He was yelling and screaming at us," testified one constable, whose name is being withheld. "I realized that I could easily lose control of the situation."

When Hamilton tried then to leave the center again, the constable grabbed him by the back of the shirt, then dowsed his face with pepper-spray. Soon, four officers had him handcuffed and restrained on the ground.

During the restraint, a bystander noticed that Hamilton's lips were blue and that he was not breathing. He lapsed into a coma and died at a local hospital when life support was disconnected two days later.

A medical examiner determined that Hamilton did not die from the pepper spray -- as had been speculated -- but from brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen, known as "restraint asphyxia".

David Wilson, QC, who represents Hamilton's family, told the court this week that the residential program and police could have prevented his death.

In his closing remarks, Wilson criticized the agency that was responsible for Hamilton's residential services for not having better procedures for handling his outbursts.

"The providers at Hamilton Residential Trust did not deliver what Russell Hamilton was entitled to, which was a complete management plan," Wilson told the court. "Had such an integrated-care package been put in place the circumstances on July 11, 2001, may have been avoided."

Wilson also pointed to testimony that the constable violated police procedure when he failed to warn Hamilton before spraying him in the face, that the officers did not perform CPR right away, and that someone other than a police officer noted that Hamilton was not breathing.

"It was a concern that the person who noticed the lips turn blue was not a person from the police."

The attorney for the police association told the coroner's court that Hamilton's death was "an unforeseen and unexpected" tragedy, brought on by his own behavior.

"The restraint of Russell Hamilton was not just justified but essential," said Herman Roose.

Coroner Matenga reserved his decision.

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