The South Australian Coroner has heard how “controversial” syndrome 'excited delirium' may have contributed to the death in custody of Wayne Fella Morrison.
The coroner examining the circumstances around the death of Morrison – a 29-year-old Wiradjuri, Kokatha, and Wirangu man – began hearing from pathologist Dr Cheryl Charlwood last Thursday.
In her evidence, Dr Charlwood said Morrison’s death could not be attributed to a single cause but rather put down to five factors: physical exertion, acute psychological stress, excited delirium, genetic susceptibility and a “potential positional element”.
“All these factors need to be considered, and some have more weight than others, but I can’t pathologically determine the exact extent of contribution of all those,” Dr Charlwood said.
Under cross examination, Dr Charlwood agreed that the improper use of a spit hood could “potentially” represent another factor, as it restricted a person’s ability to breathe.
Dr Charlwood, however, rejected suggestions Morrison’s death could be attributed to “positional asphyxia”, a term given for when the method of a person’s restraint causes them to become unable to breathe.
From the beginning of the inquest, “positional asphyxia” has been a cornerstone issue for the family, who have sought to focus the coroner’s attention on the force used in Morrison’s restraint and events afterwards.
Lawyers for the guards have countered by emphasising Morrison’s behaviour in his cell and the “superhuman strength” he possessed during an initial assault on two guards.
Morrison was wrestled to the ground by 12 corrections officers on 23 September 2016 in the hallway outside his cell, where his arms and wrists were bound and he was placed in a spithood.
He was then carried in the prone position to a prison transport van where he was placed face-down in the back.
The coroner has previously heard Morrison “would have been” held down by the five officers who were present with him in the back of the van.
Dr Charlwood said that based on her reading of the literature from the US, there was no relationship between prone restraint and death, and that more weight should be given to “excited delirium”.
Excited delirium is a syndrome where a person is said to behave aggressively, possess superhuman strength, and be immune to pain.
Sudden death is said to arise where a flood of hormones associated with adrenaline push the heart to work too hard, particularly in instances where someone is resisting restraint.
Dr Charlwood acknowledged the term was “controversial” but said it represented a consensus view among pathologists in South Australia and had been well-described in medical literature from the US.
“It is often described in association with an acute psychiatric event or drugs,” she said. “Obviously in Mr Morrison’s case the toxicology was negative so it’s not relevant but I considered it because of his history perhaps within his cell because he was having an episode with his mental health.”
Morrison had no history of drug use and was not on any medication at the time of his death.
The police officers involved in the death of George Floyd unsuccessfully attempted to cite excited delirium in their defence to murder charges, but when asked about the case Dr Charlwood said she was not familiar with it.
Dr Charlwood also noted that Morrison had a pre-existing heart condition, saying he suffered from advanced coronary artery disease that was “very rare” for a man of his age.
Closing submissions are expected to be heard from 4 August.