Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


ProPublica

seattle-march

Seattle march in support of Michael Brown. (Photo: Joe Wolf/Flickr)

What to Look for In Dueling Autopsies of Michael Brown

• August 25, 2014 • 4:00 PM

Seattle march in support of Michael Brown. (Photo: Joe Wolf/Flickr)

The postmortem by Michael Baden is only the beginning as teams of specialists study the body of an 18-year-old African American killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.

In the next few weeks, separate teams of doctors will issue autopsy reports about Michael Brown, the unarmed African American shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. If history is any guide, they will differ, perhaps significantly, on how to interpret the gunshot wounds on his body. Michael Baden, the veteran medical examiner chosen to autopsy the body by Brown’s family, has released the preliminary results of his autopsy and both the St. Louis County Medical Examiner and U.S. Justice Department have announced plans to conduct or commission separate postmortems.

As a journalist, I’ve read roughly 1,000 autopsy reports and spent much of my career reporting on fatal encounters between police officers and civilians. Here’s some of what Baden found and what experts will be looking for as they examine Brown’s corpse:

1. Evidence that Brown was fleeing from the officer who shot him, Darren Wilson. Shots to the back are a red flag, indicating the victim may have been running from the officer rather than attacking. The basic law on use of force turns on whether a police officer acted from a “reasonable belief” that he or she was facing a lethal threat. Baden—who was hired by Brown’s family—believes Brown was shot at least six times with all the bullets striking him from the front.

2. Signs of a physical altercation. Forensic pathologists study the exterior of the body for bruises, scrapes, and lacerations which can be signs that a scuffle preceded the fatal shots. Witnesses have said Brown and Wilson wrestled in the moments before the killing. On Baden’s diagram of Brown’s body, the doctor does not appear to have noted any significant injuries other than the gun shot wounds. Baden did not find gunpowder residue on Brown’s hands, one piece of evidence that would likely be present if the two men were struggling for control of a gun discharged at close range.

3. Bullet trajectory. Shots fired at a downward angle may indicate the officer fired while the victim was on his knees or laying on the ground. A person in those positions generally poses less of a physical threat. Baden said a shot to Brown’s head appeared to have come from above; he believes this was the fatal shot.

4. Number of shots. Baden voiced concern over the fact that Brown was hit by at least six shots. The doctor, who served earlier in his career as chief medical examiner for New York City and as an expert for the New York State Police, was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “In my capacity as the forensic examiner for the New York State Police, I would say, ‘You’re not supposed to shoot so many times.'” The number of shots may or may not be significant. Training on lethal force varies from department to department. Many forces train officers to continue firing until the suspect has been completely subdued. Some experts say that incidents in which a civilian has been hit with a single shot are more suspicious than those with multiple shots: The lone bullet could have been fired accidentally or in a moment of rage.

5. Gunshot residue. The presence of gunshot residue (GSR) on the skin or clothes of the victim may mean that the person was shot at very close range. Baden found no GSR on Brown’s body, but said he did not scrutinize his clothing. Additionally, bullets fired from a few inches away leave distinct wound patterns on the flesh. Baden’s report suggests the shots were fired from further away.

6. The presence of alcohol or drugs. Baden has not reviewed the toxicology tests, but results of those tests should be available soon (though it could take the authorities months to release them). Forensic pathologists typically fill vials with bodily fluids—urine, blood, or vitreous humor, the fluid within the eyeballs—and send them off to outside laboratories to be screened for alcohol, prescription drugs, and street drugs. If drugs or alcohol are discovered Brown’s system, that information might provide some additional context to the fatal events.

In some police-civilian clashes, the evidence discovered during an autopsy turns out to be crucial. In the case of Michael Brown, it’s not clear how useful this trio of autopsies will be. As the nation tries to understand what happened on August 9, the autopsy results may well not prove conclusive on the key questions.


This post originally appeared on ProPublica as “What to Look for In Dueling Autopsies of Michael Brown” and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

A.C. Thompson
A.C. Thompson has been a reporter for 12 years, mostly in the San Francisco Bay area. In 2006-2007, he was an investigative reporter for SF Weekly. For eight years before that he worked in a similar role for the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.