What Does the Autopsy of Michael Brown Tell Us?
The aftermath of the shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri has gripped the nation. The nightly protests in the city have the world watching events unfold, mainly through social media and citizen journalists. As protestors chant for justice in the tear-gas filled streets, investigators are looking into the most important question – what happened to Michael Brown?
The Ferguson police department has refused to give any detailed information. Thus far, the information they have released has been at the behest of press information requests, and the details only seem to serve to disparage the victim. This has led to a lack of trust in the investigation and Mike Brown’s family requesting a separate investigation.
While the results of the initial autopsy have still not been released by officials, results from one requested by the family were released on Sunday. The autopsy was performed by Dr. Michael M. Baden, the former chief medical examiner for the City of New York, and assistant pathologist Professor Shawn Parcells from Kansas. Dr. Baden flew to Missouri at the request of the family and waived his normal $10,000 fee due to the extraordinary circumstances of the case. He is one of only 400 forensic pathologists in the United States.
The preliminary results are the first concrete information about the case since Brown’s death on August 9. As the New York Times details, Brown was shot at least six times. Four of the wounds were on his right arm – one on his right hand and forearm, and two on his upper arm. The positioning of the wounds can indicate several things. At least three of them show that Brown was facing the officer. Dr. Baden says the wounds suggest he was shot from the front, though Mr. Parcells notes that arms flail. The wound on his forearm is a superficial graze wound, and could happen while running away from the officer, or trying to shield his body by placing his arm in front of his body.
All four wounds in his right arm could have also been the result of him standing, surrendering with his arms up, however, which is consistent with several eye witness accounts. Most importantly, none of these wounds were fatal.
Dr. Baden reports that several of the bullets entered and exited Brown’s body, leaving multiple wounds. The bullet that entered Brown’s right eye shattered it, “traveled through his face, exited his jaw and re-entered his collarbone.” This shot may not have killed him, but it would have definitely stopped him in his tracks. The most likely fatal shot, according to Dr. Baden, was the one that was shot through the top of his head and into his brain.
Mike Brown was 6 feet 4 inches tall.
In an interview with NPR’s Here & Now, forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht discussed what can and can’t be determined from this information. Dr. Wecht was not involved in the autopsy but offered his expert take after reviewing the published results. “He died from the bullet wound in his brain,” he says. “Even the wound in the eye… most probably would have been survivable.”
He continues, “That tells me that multiple shots were fired and, interestingly, that the last one may have been the shot that killed him. Between the two shots on the head, I can’t be certain which was fired first. I do believe the two head wounds came after the four shots to the right arm.”
One of the things that several witnesses have said is that Mike Brown ran from the officer after an altercation while the officer was still in his vehicle. They also state that Brown was shot after he raised his arms in surrender and faced the officer from several feet away. This information is particularly important based on Dr. Wecht’s assessment that “the one [head wound] has a very definitive downward trajectory, as a matter of fact, perpendicular to the ground, that tells me that Michael Brown was toppling, he was already falling down when that shot was fired.”
Some witnesses have said that the unarmed Michael Brown was charging like a raging bull towards the officer that was shooting at him. To that claim, Dr. Wecht says, “I think that’s highly unlikely and wild conjecture. He was falling down, pitching forward, when that shot was fired.”
This assessment is also consistent with other eyewitness accounts that Officer Darren Wilson continued to shoot after Michael Brown was already on the ground.
Dr. Baden only had access to Mr. Brown’s remains. He did not have access to any police reports, photos from the scene or even the clothing that Brown was wearing at the time of his death. He also has not seen other important parts of the investigation, including x-rays showing where the bullets were found since they were already removed when he examined the remains. Dr. Baden would need more information to give other definitive conclusions.
For now, we only have clues as to what happened on that fateful Saturday afternoon.
More clues may come from a third autopsy that is being conducted by military pathologists at the request of the Department of Justice. The DOJ has sent their own investigators, including the FBI, to Ferguson due to the extreme circumstances of the case. They are also widening their investigation to look into any civil rights violations not just in the Brown case, but for the Ferguson Police Department as a whole.
Three autopsies are highly unusual in any case. However, the way the police department has handled the investigation has led to little confidence that the department’s results would be unbiased. While the multiple autopsies could have corroborating conclusions, the multiple dissections of the body could obfuscate results and further complicate the case.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder flew to Ferguson to get an update on the investigation, just as a grand jury convened on Wednesday to hear evidence against Darren Wilson.
In the meantime, the protests continue in Ferguson amid heightened tensions with police in search of justice for Michael Brown.
Photo by Loavesofbread via Wikimedia Commons