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Questions remain in Swissvale death settlement

| Thursday, June 14, 2012, 1:55 p.m.

The $100,000 settlement of a federal lawsuit leaves unanswered the question of what caused a Swissvale man's death during a late-night confrontation with police in August 2008.

Andre DeMon "Dre" Thomas, 37, died in custody, but the county's chief medical examiner and his noted predecessor disagreed on whether police were responsible. His death prompted creation of a county task force investigating the use of Tasers.

Donna Jo Thomas of Monroeville sued Swissvale and three of the police officers who Tasered and handcuffed Thomas, claiming that he died of injuries he suffered in the struggle. The borough claimed Thomas died as result of complications from using cocaine.

The officers were responding to 911 calls from residents who said a shirtless Thomas was yelling and running in the street, knocking on doors and asking people to call the police because unseen men were chasing him with guns, according to court documents.

Lawyers for both sides on Thursday filed a joint motion to dismiss the lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer approved the motion. The federal court documents don't provide any details of the settlement.

Jon Pushinsky and Howard Messer, Thomas' attorneys, declined comment. Philip Sbrolla, one of the attorneys representing Swissvale's insurer, also declined comment.

Robert McTiernan, Swissvale's solicitor, confirmed the insurance company settled the lawsuit in March. He said the borough doesn't admit any liability.

"Our officers did nothing inappropriate in this case," he said.

County records show that Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence O'Toole on May 14 approved a distribution on May 14 that pays Donna Jo Thomas' attorneys about $53,200, Thomas about $6,000 for her son's funeral costs, and sets aside $40,800 in a trust for Andre Thomas's 6-year-old daughter.

Donna Jo Thomas and the borough agreed that Officer Debra Lynn Indovina-Akerly shocked an agitated Andre Thomas three times with a Taser while Officers Justin Lee Keenan and Gary Dickson were trying to handcuff him. Thomas claims that Keenan or Dickson then stood on her son's back, but the borough claims that Keenan only placed one knee on his back to stop him from struggling.

Thomas was pronounced dead at UPMC Braddock at 12:46 a.m. on Aug. 5. The encounter started shortly before midnight.

Dr. Karl Williams, Allegheny County's chief medical examiner, ruled a month later that Thomas had died of "agitated delirium" brought on by acute cocaine intoxication. Donna Jo Thomas hired forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, Williams' predecessor, who performed another autopsy and ruled that Thomas died of "positional asphyxia" caused by being handcuffed face down and having an officer stand on his back, according to court documents.

Both sides had pending motions asking U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer to throw out the other side's expert analysis as junk science. Williams and Wecht couldn't be reached for comment.

As a result of Thomas' death, District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. formed a 10-member task force that studied the use of Tasers by law enforcement. Its report, a year later, made several recommendations but concluded the devices reduce the risk of injury or death in instances where police have to use force.

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