Raising Hell: Issue 29: A Winning Argument

"The more we do to you, the less you seem to believe we are doing it," - Josef Mengele, Nazi death camp doctor, as remembered by Holocaust survivor Marc Berkowitz.

While the rest of the country has had a laser-like focus on events unfolding in Victoria and the failure of the federal Coalition to vaccinate Australians, I’ve spent much of the last two months sitting in a courtroom watching the inquest into the death in custody of Wayne Fella Morrison unfold. As of this week, the inquest entered its penultimate phase with the pathologist appearing to give evidence about what, she believes, actually killed the 29-year-old Indigenous man.

For months there had been a sense that something significant was taking place in that courtroom but when Dr Cheryl Charlwood first appeared last week, what that something was became clear mostly for the way she placed the greatest emphasis for his death on a thing called “excited delirium”.

Excited delirium, for those unfamiliar, has been the catch-cry of cops from the George Floyd case to a recent death in custody matter in Western Australia where an Indigenous man experiencing a psychotic break “advanced” on police and died after being shot with a taser. A coroner ruled last week that the police involved in that case did not use excessive force — even though they confronted the man outside an Officeworks in Perth after responding to an entirely unrelated call for a robbery.

The condition — if it can be called that — is not currently recognised by any Australian medical body, the World Health Organisation, the DSM-5 or the International Classification of Diseases. The only organisations in the world to embrace the term is the American College of Emergency Physicians and the National Association of Medical Examiners. It’s symptoms are said to be categorised by irrational behaviour, “superhuman strength” and an immunity to pain, meaning that law enforcement — when called to respond to an incident — are trained to react with all necessary force immediately to bring the person under control. According to those who advance this theory, a flood of hormones associated with adrenaline cause a person’s heart to explode as they struggle against their restraints.

While the condition has a history rooted firmly in 18th century pseudoscience, its modern incarnation begins in the 1980s with Dr Charles Wetli who diagnosed “excited delirium” in response to a string of 30 deaths among black women in Miami. The deaths all appeared to involve cocaine use, many were sex workers and the women were all said to have died spontaneously. Speaking to reporters, Wetli explained the effects his diagnosis thus: “the male of the species becomes psychotic and the female of the species dies in relation to sex”. Later, it would turn out that 32 deaths he attributed to “excited delirium” were actually victims of a serial killer operating in Florida — not that this did anything to stop the condition being adopted by law enforcement. Excited delirium has been taught to US law enforcement and corrections and is routinely cited in deaths in custody matters, much to the chagrin of some.

According to the US think tank The Brookings Institute, excited delirium is disproportionately cited in cases involved black men and is “a misappropriation of medical terminology, used by law enforcement to legitimize police brutality and to retroactively explain certain deaths occurring in police custody.” For chief medical examiner in New York, Dr Michael Badden has described it as a “boutique” medical diagnosis for US law enforcement looking to evade responsibility in deaths in custody matters. And as another journalist, Robert Evans, has pointed out, if a rush of hormones associated with adrenaline cause people in the throws of psychiatric crisis or a cocaine to die suddenly while being arrested, why doesn’t the same happen to police officers or soldiers who are exposed to equally stressful situations?

The good news is that Australian law enforcement and corrections are increasingly adopting the diagnosis in Australia. Training on excited delirium has been developed for law enforcement in at least Western Australian and South Australia, and while there has been an initial run of bad luck in getting coroners to take excited delirium seriously, the Wayne Fella Morrison inquiry may change that. In 2015 the Victorian coroner threw out an pathologists diagnosis that Odisseas Vekiaris, a non-Indigenous man, died of excited delirium. Now, in the case of Wayne Fella Morrison, the pathologist has handed the coroner a bundle of 15 journal articles she says supports the claim that excited delirium is a real thing — though the veracity of these articles remains to be seen, given the long history of the TASER corporation in shaping the body of medical literature on the subject.

As the inquest picks up again today, how this will play out remains to be seen, but keep an eye on my Twitter feed for updates as the situation unfolds.

For the Fortnight: May 26 to June 8

Reporting In

Where I recap what I’ve been doing this last fortnight so you know I’m not just using your money to stimulate the local economy …

  • ‘Wayne Fella Morrison inquest: prison manager tells court he believes guards obstructed investigation’ (The Guardian, 25 May 2021).

  • ‘Wayne Fella Morrison's family disappointed as inquest fails to give answers’ (NITV, 2 June 2021).

Cracking COVIDSafe

Over the course of November, Raising Hell ran its first serialised investigation, CrackingCOVIDSafe, in association with Electronic Frontiers Australia. The series looked at the creation of the government’s automated contact tracing app COVIDSafe and stepped out how I used Freedom of Information to learn more so that others may learn to do their own. Along the way, we tracked how a constellation of government agencies and a clutch of for-profit companies made a hash of a new public service. So far we have managed to reveal how the government prioritised reputational risk over service quality and how security issues were not addressed by government for weeks after release, even though they put the app in breach of the government’s own privacy policy.

Read Part One

Laramba’s Water

The story of Laramba so far is straight forward. High concentrations of uranium were first found in Laramba’s water back in 2008. The situation in the remote Indigenous community of about 263 people hit the headlines in 2018 when NT Power and Water Corporation (PWC) published a report showing uranium concentrations there nearly three times higher than the national guidelines. That story made news again early this year when the community lost a legal fight to force the NT Government to do something to fix it.

Thanks to the support of my generous subscribers I’ve been able to pick up the issue to find out more. Here’s a running list of published stories that will be updated as I do more over time.

You Hate To See It

A dyspeptic, snark-ridden and highly ironic round-up of the news from our shared hellscape…

  • Not Quite A Cinderella Story

    We begin this fortnight on the rooftop of the Nine Elms development in London where the building’s inhabitants did their best to escape the dull warmth of summer by enjoying a dip in the world’s first Sky Pool. As a body of water suspended ten floors above the ground between to skyscrapers, the acrylic deathtrap is believed to be the firs of its kind in the world. Of course, the engineering marvel is just one feature in a building that boasts a private bar, private cinema, a private gym, a private phone app for booking PT sessions in said gym and a private indoor pool — facilities entirely off limits to the building’s poorest inhabitants. Under an affordable housing program, the building’s developments were required to build a minimum number of flats and so were forced to find a solution in order to keep a bunch of scruffy undesirables out of view of their preferred clientelle. Their solution? “Poor doors”.

  • Thoughts and Prayers, Peter Coy

    Spare a thought for Bloomberg media this week after Businessweek editor Peter Coy waded into debates about population control whereby he offered bizarre defence of a global caste system. Based on a cursory reading of some seemingly random philosophy texts, Coy appeared to suggest a class system where the majority of the world’s population subsisted in miserable conditions for the enjoyment of a few as an inevitability, before he exhorted readers to “spare a thought for the billions of people who will never exist”.

  • Blaze Of Glory

    Closer to home, Tasmanian Senator Jacquie Lambie has been banned from flying on Qantas aircraft after “blowing her top” at an airline worker while in the Chairman’s lounge. Lambie reportedly yelled things about “pussy power” but as the airline confirmed, absolutely did not make homophobic remarks against Qantas’ CEO in an incident that was caught entirely on CCTV camera. In another reported fact belying the deep class character of the incident, Lambie will now be forced to rely on Virgin for a six month ban — which is presumably some deep insult significant to those who travel frequently and are frequent patrons of the Chairman’s lounge.

  • All Going Well Then?

    The federal Coalition may be planning a “radical” overhaul of Medicare that will, effectively, make our system more like the US (during the current pandemic, no less) and it may be in the process of taking apart the NDIS and it may have outsourced the bulk of a vaccination program to four different providers for $76 million who each had a different understanding about what was required of them, but don’t worry, average citizen. If you are in Victoria and struggling to get by in the latest lockdown, you can buy your groceries of Afterpay, just like you can get plastic surgery on a buy-now, pay-later basis.

  • Forget Smoko

    Working conditions may be slowly being eroded across the board — with the federal Coalition now setting their sights on Medicare, of all things — but at least the workers of the world can appreciate the perks offered by erotic filmmaker Erika Lust. In an effort to make her employees “comfortable”, Lust announced she was offering her employees 30-minute masturbation breaks in a dedication private station she set up for them. Lust said she hoped the offering will enhance “workplace productivity and satisfaction”.

Failing Upward

Where we recognise and celebrate the true stupidity of the rich, powerful and influential…

Good Reads, Good Times

To share the love, here are some of the best or more interesting reads from the last fortnight…

  • It may be old but as a fan of Robert Capa I clocked this old investigation into one of the greatest myths of his career which shows, yet again, how the guy’s real skill was public relations.

  • Check out Kurt Johnson’s writing in Renew Economy about how the LaTrobe Valley is making the transition to a zero carbon economy.

Before You Go (Go)…

  • Are you a public sector bureaucrat whose tyrannical boss is behaving badly? Have you recently come into possession of documents showing some rich guy is trying to move their ill-gotten-gains to Curacao? Did you take a low-paying job with an evil corporation registered in Delaware that is burying toxic waste under playgrounds? If your conscience is keeping you up at night, or you’d just plain like to see some wrong-doers cast into the sea, we here at Raising Hell can suggest a course of action: leak! You can securely make contact through Signal or through encrypted message Wickr Me on my account: rorok1990. Alternatively you can send us your hard copies to: PO Box 134, Welland SA 5007

  • And if you’ve come this far, consider supporting me further by picking up one of my books, leaving a review or by just telling a friend about Raising Hell!

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