Friday, November 14, 2014
OFFICER WILSON’S FATE MAY DEPEND ON FORENSIC PATHOLOGY
FERGUSON AWAITS GRAND JURY FINDINGS
AUTOPSIES RESULTS WILL PLAY KEY ROLE
FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST DR. MICHAEL BADEN AT PRESS
CONFERENCE EXPLAINING HIS PRELIMINARY AUTOPSY FINDINGS
AS LAWYERS FOR THE BROWN FAMILY LOOK ON
TAGS: PO DARREN WILSON, FERGUSON, MISSOURI, MICHAEL BROWN UNARMED,
RACIAL TENSIONS, FORENSIC PATHOLOGY, DR. MICHAEL BADEN, FORENSICS AND
FORENSIC AUTOPSY, THE ART AND SCIENCE OF THE FORENSIC AUTOPSY
ST. LOUIS COUNTY GRAND JURY
(Friday November, 14, Ferguson, MO) The headlines are ominous; they are already predicting with an exaggerated sense of foreboding how this community will react if the Grand Jury currently hearing the evidence against Police Officer Darren Wilson, the White Ferguson Officer who shot and killed an unarmed Black 18 year old, Michael Brown on the afternoon of August 9th, 2014. That event served as a catalyst that ignited the anger, near riotous mob behavior that was as much about this predominantly Black community has long felt the alleged heavy hands of a Police Force with a sole Black Officer. The history of this small town has been marred by racial tensions between citizens and those who enforce the law. This particular episode made national headlines after President Obama dispatched the United States Attorney General, Eric Holder, the top law enforcement official in the country, to Ferguson, ostensibly to meet with the Brown family and the usual roster of “Black Activists”, “Community Leaders” and bellicose reverends of all stripe to assure the citizenry that “justice will be served”. Just as disturbing have been recent statements in the press from the head of the Missouri chapter of the KKK. All the elements for a potentially volatile scenario once the Grand Jury’s findings are made public are gathering here.
On the immediate nights after Michael Brown’s death demonstrations and protests paralyzed this community. Once peace was restored demonstrations continued in an orderly manner despite the still simmering frustration that ran like an ugly undercurrent through this town. The Brown family retained the services of several well know attorneys who had represented families who had lost a child under similar circumstances. The now familiar narrative of White Police Officers abusing and even killing young Black men is never as clear cut as the public perceives them. Yet, no matter what the actual, substantiated factual accounts are typically ignored or reflexively dismissed as White Cops sticking up for one another, obstructing justice, and having tacit approval from their superiors that they can do as they please out on the streets and a criminal justice system that endemically treats African Americans much differently than they do White people.
The central assertions of the case are well known. The points of contention, the very factors that will determine Officer Wilson’s fate, are more complex and findings of competing post mortem examination will be the deciding evidence to either indict PO Wilson or not. Despite what the public may believe about crime scene investigation, autopsies and forensics, concepts they’ve likely picked up from viewing all the CSI and police procedural TV programs, are presented in an unrealistically simple manner that bears scant resemblance to the actual work performed by Police Detectives, Forensic Scientists from an array of specialties, and the Forensics Pathologist. In some case the investigation of an unnatural death, a murder, can yield evidentiary information that requires as much art as it does science; as much interpreting all the findings and working to establish a cohesive, coherent body of proof and, ultimately, court testimony.
WHERE THE LIVING SPEAK FOR THE DEAD
Above the entrance to most Autopsy Suites in the country is an old Latin admonition, or some abbreviated version of it, to be heeded by those about to enter. In English it is: “Let idle talk be silenced. Let laughter be banished. This is the place where Death rejoices to teach those who live”.
To the uninitiated the Autopsy Suite can be an intimidatingly discomforting place. Just the realization of what transpires in the stark stainless tell, cold, impersonal environment is sufficient to cause some to get more than a little jittery. But the environment is such because it is specifically designed, constructed and intended for one purpose and one purpose only: the performance of post mortem examinations. In spite of what some view as a gruesome, loathsome task, the autopsy is a solemn medical procedure with one purpose; to attempt to determine the cause of death – the manner and method – that transpired to result in a particular body to be placed beneath the bright lights above the autopsy table. Autopsies are conducted for a wide range of reasons from accessing the efficacy of some treatment modality, to rule in or out suicide, for insurance purposes, and as teaching experiencing. Arguably, the most important reason for an autopsy is as a Forensics tool; the opportunity for the Forensics Pathologist to dissect and study a body that was felled under criminal or suspicious circumstances. It is in this scenario that the autopsy can become the final arbiter of truth.
HANDS UP, HANDS DOWN
The autopsies conducted on the body of Michael Brown have each documented the various gunshot wounds, there location, whether they were entry or exit wounds and, upon internal examination, which one or ones where the actual manner of death. Often a body can sustain numerous gunshots and it becomes the Forensic Pathologists responsibility if a single gunshot or the collective damage of several shots caused death. In cases where bullets are recovered, the Ballistics specialists are able to identify if the bullets recovered covered came from one firearm or several. But in this case there is but one firearm and one shooter involved.
It has been alleged that PO Wilson and Mr. Brown were involved in an altercation while Wilson was still seated in his patrol car and there has been evidence recovered to support this claim; the evidence being Brown’s blood on Wilson’s shirt. After this alleged confrontation Mr. Brown did I fact walk away from PO Wilson as reported by eye witness accounts and the absence of gunshot residue on Brown’s body or clothing. This is indicative of Wilson firing his weapon from a distance – between 6 and 20 feet – from Mr. Brown. What the Forensic Pathologists also had to study closely were the clothes Mr. Brown wore on that fateful day. If his hands were raised in a “don’t shoot” position, the entry wounds and entry point on his shirt would be in line with each other. Many cases come down to this sort of evidence. When points of entry on clothing do not comport with entry wounds on the body, much can be said as to the actual physical distance, position and posture of the victim. Conflicting reports have been leaked by people purporting to be privy to the on-going Grand Jury testimony say there is evidence supporting both sides in this tragic story but it is imperative that the Grand jury completes their sacred task before anything approaching the real “truth” can be made available.
MULTIPLE AUTOPSIES MUDDIED THE WATER
As has been reported, the body of Michael Brown went through three autopsies. The simple facts and details of the procedure are clear; the first autopsy, if conducted completely in accordance with standard forensics post mortem procedures and protocols, is the most important and the best source of medico-legal information. Once a body is subjected to a thorough post mortem, any ensuing examinations are extremely limited in making any kind of determination besides some of the most obvious. Frankly, a complete autopsy is an in-depth examination of the external condition of the corpse and, once the “Y” shaped incision made, the body is splayed open. After examination of the corpse in this state, the internal viscera are each removed, weighed, measured, examined and sample of tissue are taken to be made into microscopic slides for later study by the Pathologist.
In the Forensic setting particular attention is obvious paid to any physical signs of violence, trauma, or insult. The dead body speaks volumes if the Forensics team is astute enough to listen. In this case, Mr. Brown’s internal examination prior to any removal of organs, was exhaustively studied to trace the damage made by the bullets that ultimately hit him. There has been much written and reported about a head wound and the entry point of that particular wound that was most likely the one single shot most responsible for his death. The wound’s position is a determining factor in whether or not Mr. Brown was standing up right, standing up right with his head bowed to a certain degree or, if he was on his knees with or without his head bowed to one degree or another. The position of that entry wound on the head would indicate that the 6’ 4” Mr. Brown was perhaps falling face-forward down or otherwise in a non-standing compromised posture. The entire Grand Jury testimony may come down to this singular question because its accurate answer based on the pathological findings has the potential to make or break the case.
In the case of Mr. Brown it remains unclear who had access to what evidence and when? There were initial reports that the St. Louis county coroner did not have Mr. Brown’s clothes to examine while the autopsy conducted on behalf on the family by arguably the most famous, respected, and brilliant Forensic Pathologist in America, Dr. Michael Baden, had either some or all of the clothing to examine. A third post mortem conducted by an FBI forensics team probably was more redundant and useless than helpful or insightful. With three separate and distinct autopsies it was probably a mighty chore for the County Prosecutor to decide what forensic pathology evidence he chose to present to the Grand Jury. Even in the most unambiguous of circumstances, the medico-legal information provided to the Prosecutor is often presented clumsily and inaccurately. It is the job of the Prosecutor to take what is often very technical medical information and put it in terms that can be easily understood by a jury, a jury typically composed of blue-collar, working class people typically unfamiliar with such complex information. Since jurors tend to take their civic duty seriously and, in a Grand Jury setting, they may ask many questions to have points of testimony clarified.
In any homicide but particularly in a case as emotionally charged, high profile, and controversial as is this, the truth is what is sought. The truth, some call it justice, is what all the autopsies and investigatory procedures are about. The details of the volumes of information and testimony given to the Grand Jury over the course of the last three months contains the truth or, at least, as much of the truth as can be determined by all the cumulative data. Police Officer Wilson has provided his “side” of his confrontation with Michael Brown just as have eye witnesses and other bystanders who were close enough to the scene of the crime to offer some valuable auditory information. Even at this time and despite the constant drip of leaks from sources within the investigation, no one knows what the truth is. Everyone has an opinion as is their right. Much of the opinion is split along the deeply gouged color line in America; Black Americans believe that White Officer Wilson shot Mr. Brown without “just cause” a line of thought that is at the heart of much of the racial tensions between White Law Enforcement Officers (LEO’s) and Black men, particularly young Black men.
What is at stake regarding this Grand Jury’s verdict is the matter of whether or not to indict Officer Wilson on a charge of homicide, manslaughter or some similar charge. Given the amount of media coverage this case garnered in the immediate wake of the incident that left Mr. Brown dead, the eyes of the country will be upon Ferguson when the Grand Jury’s findings are released to the public. Police here and Police Departments in a number of cities across America are making contingency plans if the verdict is not the one the Black community hopes for.
In the movie “A Few Good Men” the Marine Corps Officer played by the actor Jack Nicholson famously shouted at the prosecutor from the witness box, “You can’t handle the truth”. Likely within days we will learn what the Grand Jury has learned and we will see if we can “handle” such truth.
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