Daniel Lee Humphreys with his daughters. Photo was taken on Dec. 10, 2007. (Courtesy of Barbara Steward)
Daniel Lee Humphreys was speeding on his motorcycle down a freeway in Stockton, fleeing from a California Highway Patrol officer, when he crashed. Humphreys, 47, staggered to the median and tried to climb over a metal divider. The officer shocked him repeatedly with a Taser gun and killed him.
It has been more than nine years since that July night in 2008, but Humphreys’ ex-wife, Barbara Steward, said his death is in her thoughts every day.
“It's something I probably will think about the rest of my life, because of the way it all turned out,” Steward said one evening in November, as she sat on her den sofa in a wash of candlelight. Steward talked about her 13-year marriage to Humphreys and the two daughters they raised together.
She said it would have been easier for the girls, who were 13 and 18 at the time, to accept their father’s death if had happened naturally, or even by accident.
Father of Two Died After an Officer Tased Him 31 Times; Sheriff Called It an Accident
“But to know it was preventable, and it was so excessive, and then for nothing to be done,” she said. “I think that's what I struggle with every day for my kids.”
Steward said it still stings that San Joaquin County Sheriff-Coroner Steve Moore ruled Humphreys' death an accident -- especially knowing that his office had evidence about the Taser that was withheld from the forensic pathologist who conducted the autopsy.
“It was only reported that he was tased twice and in reality he was tased 31 times,” she said. “I'm not sure how that can be overlooked or swept under a carpet like it was.”
Questions about Humphreys’ death surfaced last week when the county’s chief forensic pathologist resigned, accusing Sheriff Moore -- who oversees the coroner’s office -- of meddling in the investigations of deaths in which law enforcement officers were involved.
Dr. Bennet Omalu -- best known for his discovery of a traumatic brain injury in football players and played by Will Smith in the movie "Concussion" -- raised the Humphreys case, along with several more recent officer-involved deaths, in memos released last week accusing the sheriff of repeatedly withholding investigative reports and certifying deaths as accidents in order to protect officers.
In an Aug. 22, 2017, memo -- one of several he wrote this year to document what he sees as wrongdoing by the sheriff -- Omalu said that in the Humphreys case, “information was intentionally withheld from me by the sheriff, in order to mislead me from determining the case to be a homicide.”
At the time of Humphreys’ death Omalu had been with the county less than a year. He wrote that he had initially thought the suppression of evidence was “an anomaly” but has since come to regard it as “routine.”
Physicians Associations Call for Creating an Independent Medical Examiner
The accusations raise questions more broadly about the independence of death investigations in a sheriff-coroner system, in which forensic pathologists work under a law enforcement officer, according to the California Medical Association and the San Joaquin Medical Society.
“The issue of diminished public trust in the autopsy process is not new,” Dr. Grant Mellor, president of the county medical society, wrote in a letter to the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors last week.
Citing related allegations in Santa Clara County, Mellor and the president of the statewide medical association, Dr. Theodore Mazer, called on San Joaquin County officials to immediately create an independent medical examiner’s office and remove control of coroner functions from the sheriff.
San Joaquin is one of 50 California counties that have an elected sheriff-coroner, while the remaining eight, including San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, have independent medical examiners.
Sheriff Calls Accusations of Interference False
Sheriff Moore has denied Omalu’s allegations. In a statement on Dec. 6, the day after Omalu’s resignation, Moore wrote that he had never interfered with forensic examinations.
“I would never try to control, influence, or change the opinions of Dr. Omalu or any pathologist working on a case,” he said.
The San Joaquin County district attorney is investigating the allegations.
Barbara Steward and her daughters filed a wrongful death lawsuit in 2009 against the state of California, the CHP and the officer who fired the Taser. In a deposition to an attorney for the family, Omalu described what happened when he conducted the autopsy.
Omalu said the sheriff’s deputy investigating the death initially told him that the CHP officer who chased Humphreys to that freeway median fired his Taser “twice.”
Omalu said he asked sheriff’s investigators for the Taser printout that shows the number of times the trigger was pulled and the length of each electrical shock. He said he kept Humphreys’ autopsy file open for six months, waiting for the report.
When he couldn’t get a copy, he based his findings on the evidence available to him. He wrote that the death was likely caused by a head injury from the crash, and -- in the cover sheet accompanying the autopsy report -- he advised the sheriff that the death was an accident.
Omalu testified that two years later he got a phone call from the deputy district attorney assigned to the case. Tori Verber Salazar asked him if he had seen the Taser report. Omalu told her he hadn’t and, according to his deposition, Verber Salazar replied, “I thought as much.” She faxed him the report.
When Omalu finally saw the 31 Taser discharges -- subjecting Humphreys to 2½ minutes of electrical current -- he no longer considered the death an accident. He amended his autopsy report to state that Humphreys had died from repeated electrical shock when police intervened. And he advised the sheriff that the death was a homicide. In forensic pathology, the definition of homicide is a “death at the hands of another.” The term does not ascribe motive or guilt.
According to California government code, determining the cause of death -- what killed a person -- is the purview of the forensic pathologist, in this case Omalu, but certifying the manner of death -- whether a person’s death is an accident, a homicide, a suicide, a result of natural causes or undetermined -- is the job of the sheriff-coroner.
On Humphreys’ death certificate Sheriff Moore listed the manner of death as an accident -- both initially and after Omalu advised him the death should be considered a homicide.
When asked about the Humphreys’ case last week, Moore told KQED he needed time to review his files on it before he could answer questions about it.
Omalu’s deposition became evidence in the civil lawsuit that Barbara Steward and her daughters filed against the state of California, the CHP and the officer who fired the Taser.
The family’s attorney, Los Angeles-based Peter Williamson, said he is convinced the CHP and the San Joaquin County sheriff engaged in a cover-up. He said the CHP printed out the Taser report the day after Humphreys’ death -- the same day Omalu performed the autopsy. According to a source close to the sheriff’s office who asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, deputies there also knew about the Taser.
“I cannot for the life of me fathom what the possible explanation could be for the withholding of that evidence,” Williamson told KQED, “other than that it was a not-so-subtle attempt to clear the officer from any wrongdoing.”
Williamson, who has litigated other Taser lawsuits, explained the weapon shoots two fishhook-shaped prongs that catch on clothing or skin and are connected to the device by electrical wires. Pulling the trigger sends an electrical current through the person’s body, spasming muscles and causing the person to collapse.
That’s what happened to Daniel Humphreys.
“He went down and he never moved from the position that he landed in on the ground,” Williamson said. According to reports that Williamson reviewed, the officer “kept yelling for him to move one of his arms, which was pinned underneath him.” When Humphreys didn’t respond, “[the officer] just kept firing over and over and over again.”
At the time of Humphreys’ death, Barbara Steward worked as a civilian employee in the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office. She has since retired.
Sitting stiffly on her sofa, she said bitterly that she believes the sheriff buried evidence that Humphreys was killed with a Taser out of fear that it would make it harder for law enforcement to use the weapon.
“If the sheriff had ruled this as a homicide, as it should have been...” Steward said, “it would have had such impact on law enforcement that he would have taken a lot of heat.”
The Highway Patrol’s internal investigation cleared the officer of wrongdoing, but it was not released publicly.
In 2015 the state settled the lawsuit with Steward and her daughters for $1 million. In a filing summarizing the case, attorney Williamson said the withholding of evidence from Dr. Omalu prevented him from discovering “the true facts” of the case and “obstructed justice.”
Steward said settling the lawsuit, rather than going to trial, spared her daughters from having to revisit their father’s death over and over in court. But she also regrets it.
“Money doesn't replace a person, it doesn't fix the wrong,” she said. “Had it been me, myself, I would have pushed it to the end, just to look that officer in the eye in a courtroom.”
DA Poised to Issue Report on Humphreys’ Death, Nearly a Decade On
The San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office also opened an investigation into Humphreys’ death, as it does with all officer-involved deaths. The DA did not file charges against the CHP officer -- and, almost a decade later, has not published a report explaining why.
Tori Verber Salazar, who was elected district attorney in 2015, said the Humphreys investigation was completed only recently. Lugging a 2-foot stack of binders into a conference room in her Stockton office, she said all the reports are there, just not public yet.
"We should have done a better job here and we didn't, and I apologize for that," Verber Salazar said.
She said she plans to go over the results with Steward and Humphreys’ daughters before the end of the year.
In a Dec 4, 2017, statement posted on Facebook the San Joaquin District Attorney's Office said she decides whether to prosecute a case based on an independent assessment, not on how the sheriff-coroner certifies a death.
Verber Salazar said there was insufficient evidence to charge the CHP officer with Humphreys death. She said that, given the high-speed chase and the officer’s suspicion that Humphreys had a gun, the officer was justified in his use of force.
Urgent Calls for Reform
Dr. Omalu and his colleague, Dr. Susan Parson, who resigned from the San Joaquin Sheriff's Office last month, both documented other cases in which they say the sheriff interfered in their autopsies -- preventing them from going to crime scenes or withholding investigatory reports.
For Omalu and the physicians associations, such interference compromises the integrity of the county’s death investigations.
“Physicians have a professional and ethical obligation to place the patient’s interest foremost, even in death,” wrote the CMA president Theodore Mazer in a press release last week. “Allowing non-physicians to influence the practice of medicine in any way, shape or form, puts all patients at risk. ..."
At least two county supervisors have acknowledged the seriousness of the accusations against the sheriff.
“These are pretty intense allegations,” said Supervisor Miguel Villapudua. “It doesn’t sound good.”
But he added, “I want to give the sheriff an opportunity to defend himself.”
Supervisor Tom Patti told KQED that county leaders are beginning to look into the sheriff’s conduct and, more broadly, the way death investigations are handled.
“County counsel is reviewing our protocol and our standard practices,” he said.
Patti said the county was already exploring the idea of adopting a medical examiner system -- in which a physician, board certified in forensic pathology, decides both the cause and manner of death, independent of law enforcement.
Patti said he asked the County Administrator’s Office a couple of months ago to analyze what the change would mean for San Joaquin County.
“We’re looking at what other counties do,” Patti said. “We will certainly test the waters before we jump in.”
Weeks before Omalu and Parson resigned, Barbara Steward was already convinced that the county should change how it handles death investigations.
Clutching a tissue to dab away tears, she said she believes forensic pathologists should be the ones to determine both the cause and manner of death.
“They're the ones that know what kills a person,” she said. Then she added, the sheriff “just has too much power to misuse that final say.”