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Excited Delirium | A medical condition or a defense for in-custody deaths?

The Medical Community has denounced the syndrome but it remains a key legal defense in high-profile police custody deaths.

Dorian Hargrove

San Diego County Sheriff

Published: 2:17 PM PST March 6, 2023
Updated: 2:17 PM PST March 6, 2023

Loan Ngyuen tries her best to steer her nine-year-old son from logging on to Google and typing in his last name.

She knows what he will find. He will find articles about his dad, a lot of them. 

The boy will see photos of his dad, Lucky Phounsy, before he died after a violent altercation with a handful of deputies inside his grandparents' Santee home in 2015.

He will read statements that his dad was high on drugs and mentally deranged. 

He will read that his dad was in a state of delirium high on illegal drugs with deputies for 20 minutes inside the hallway of their home, on the other side of the bedroom door as the boy's mother held him and his baby sister.

So much of that narrative, Nguyen says, is untrue.

So much, she says, was concocted by Sheriff's Deputies, and attorneys for San Diego County in order to dodge legal liability for her husband's death that day.

During the more than seven years of litigation that followed Phounsy's death, the county pushed hard to convince a jury that Lucky Phounsy did not die from maximum restraints or several taser chargers fired into him, but was treated under the "Excited Delirium" protocol, a medical theory claimed to exist in drug addicts and schizophrenics.

The theory states that when people with a history of drug abuse and mental health conditions are placed in high-intensity situations, for example, maximum police restraints, can grow severely agitated and display feats of superhuman strength prior to their heart giving out and dying.

In recent years, Excited Delirium has been the main legal defense in high-profile excessive force trials throughout the country including George Floyd, Elijah McClain, Daniel Prude, as well as dozens of others.

It is a syndrome backed by a small group of medical experts, few more so than UCSD Doctor of Emergency Medicine, Dr. Gary Vilke, who has received thousands of dollars to testify in cases of in-custody deaths nationwide and tens of thousands of dollars to train local law enforcement officers.

In Lucky Phounsy's case, the defense painted a picture of a drug-addled man in the grips of psychosis who threatened to hurt police officers that April day in 2015, not a hard-working, 32-year-old husband and father of two.

By doing so, widows and family members such as Loan Nguyen, are left with the daunting task of teaching her children who their father was and convincing them that he was not what the county and their expert witness painted him as.

Now, on the heels of a $12 million settlement in the wrongful death lawsuit she filed over her husband's death, Nguyen, says she is ready to talk about the real Lucky Phounsy and what happened that day.

"We used to say he was the peanut butter to my jelly," said Nguyen. "He was my soulmate, my best friend, the father to my kids. He was someone that I thought I would have for the rest of my life."

"Lucky was a hard worker. He was a father of two little ones. He was a husband. He was a son. He was an uncle. Those deputies knew nothing about him. And they came in and just treated him like he was a monster. That night, changed the course of my life forever."

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