Yesterday as our little group was preparing to stand in solidarity with Ferguson for the national October 22 Day Against Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation, the media was buzzing about the story headlined above. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about the controversial leaked autopsy report quotes California forensics expert Dr. Judy Melinek extensively, but it turns out that she didn’t say what the story says she did. If you think the official autopsy report exonerates Darren Wilson, blame it on a couple of reporters who blithely misquoted a forensics expert to — apparently — support the headline they wanted to write.
For the TL;DR crowd, here’s a synopsis of the problems with the article written by Christine Byers and Blythe Bernhard for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
The Post-Dispatch says that the autopsy report supports Wilson’s version of events. In fact, it supports the earlier eyewitness testimony at least as much as it does Wilson’s.
The Post-Dispatch (and later, the Washington Post, which essentially reported on the the St. Louis reporting) claims that a forensic expert said the autopsy shows that Michael Brown was “going for his (Wilson’s) gun.” Except that’s not what the expert said – at least not in anything she provided on the record. She told Lawrence O’Donnell that it was just as likely that Brown was trying to defend himself from being shot.
The Post-Dispatch quotes the expert saying that Michael Brown’s was not in surrender posture when he was shot. She actually wrote that she can’t say with reasonable certainty that his hands were up when he was shot in the right forearm.
The article claims the expert said the autopsy didn’t support witnesses who said Michael Brown was shot while running away or with his hands up. She apparently said nothing of the sort.
The expert quoted has since told Lawrence O’Donnell that she was only asked if the autopsy report was consistent with Darren Wilson’s version of events. She was not asked if it fit other scenarios, though there are eyewitness accounts that differ from Wilson’s account.
Now, here’s a deeper dive with links and quotes – but before we take a look at what Dr. Melinek told the Post-Dispatch – or to be more specific, what the Post-Dispatch chose to print – let’s take a look at who Judy Melinek is and how she happens to come into this.
Judy Melinek is a California forensics expert who is frequently called upon as a consultant to interpret autopsy results. She has spent time as a medical examiner, and has written a book about her experiences. When I first read the article in the St. Louis paper, I was flabbergasted at the quotes attributed to her – and you’ll see in the excerpts below that the reports presented them as actual quotes, not as paraphrases. I’m not a forensics expert but even I know the fact that someone’s hand is near a gun when it goes off does not necessarily mean that they were “going for the gun.”
All I could think was that either the expert was incredibly biased, or that there were details in the autopsy that didn’t make it into the newspaper. Silly me – I entirely missed a third possibility – that the reporters made up quotes out of their own heads – but that appears to be exactly what happened.
As to how she got dragged into this whole thing, here’s the explanation in Dr. Melinek’s own words:
A reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called me earlier this week, saying she had Michael Brown’s official autopsy report as prepared by the St. Louis County Medical Examiner, and asking me if I would examine and analyze it from the perspective of a forensic pathologist with no official involvement in the Ferguson, Missouri shooting death.
I bring this up because earlier this afternoon, MSNBC’s Joy Reid referred to Dr. Melinek as the doctor who performed the autopsy. Now, Reid is usually pretty on-point with the facts in her reporting, but this was a big oops. And if she’s making it, you can be sure that others are definitely making the same mistake.
It’s not the first time that Dr. Melinek has opined on an autopsy performed on Michael Brown, either. Back in August after the family released the results of the second autopsy, performed by Dr. Michael Baden, Dr. Melinek wrote this about the tweaked autopsy sketch that went viral:
Even if Dr. Baden, a board-certified forensic pathologist, looked at photos of the injuries taken prior to the embalming, the orientation and quality of the photos taken by the technician would influence his interpretation of the findings. Autopsy means “see for yourself”—and there is no substitute for seeing the undisturbed body for yourself if you are going to be offering opinions with legal ramifications.
It was difficult to reconcile the person who wrote that with the person who was quoted in Byers’ and Bernhard’s article. It’s important to remember that Dr. Melinek was not offering an opinion with legal ramifications. Rather, she was offering an opinion to a reporter, whose reporting would help shape public opinion in a highly contentious court case. The reporters quoted her thus:
Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist in San Francisco, said the autopsy “supports the fact that this guy is reaching for the gun, if he has gunpowder particulate material in the wound.” She added, “If he has his hand near the gun when it goes off, he’s going for the officer’s gun.”
I read that yesterday morning and thought, “Wait, what? That’s a pretty big leap.”
And indeed it is. If he has his hand near the gun when it goes off, it means … his hand was near the gun when it went off. We don’t know why or how his hand got there. It’s just as likely that he was trying to block the gun because he was afraid that Darren Wilson was about to kill him.
And, in fact, Melinek appeared on Lawrence O’Donnell’s “The Last Word” last night to essentially call bullshit on what the Post-Dispatch said she said, and followed it up with the previously-linked post on her blog. According to the doctor, this is what she told the reporter from the newspaper (emphasis mine):
The graze wound on the right thumb is oriented upwards, indicating that the tip of the thumb is toward the weapon. The hand wound has gunpowder particles on microscopic examination, which suggests that it is a close-range wound. That means that Mr. Brown’s hand would have been close to the barrel of the gun. Given the investigative report which says that the officer’s weapon discharged during a struggle in the officer’s car, this wound to the right thumb likely occurred at that time.
We all know that “close to the barrel of the gun” is the exact same thing as “going for the gun.” Or not.
But the reporters’ fuckery doesn’t end there. The article goes on:
Melinek also said the autopsy did not support witnesses who have claimed Brown was shot while running away from Wilson, or with his hands up.
A sixth shot that hit the forearm traveled from the back of the arm to the inner arm, which means Brown’s palms could not have been facing Wilson, as some witnesses have said, Melinek said. That trajectory shows Brown probably was not taking a standard surrender position with arms above the shoulders and palms out when he was hit, she said.
The part I cut with the … was a description of the wounds to Michael Brown’s head, chest and torso. No one disagrees that those shots were fired when Michael Brown was facing Darren Wilson. It’s that last paragraph that’s a problem. Here’s what Dr. Melinek actually had to say about that forearm wound:
You can’t say within reasonable certainty that his hands were up based on the autopsy findings alone. The back to front and upward trajectory of the right forearm wound could occur in multiple orientations and a trajectory reconstruction would need to be done using the witness statements, casings, height of the weapon and other evidence from the scene, which have yet to be released.
Again, there’s a big difference between “did not support witnesses” who said his hands were up and “can’t say within reasonable certainty” that his hands were up — when that shot hit him. That particular wound goes from back to front, which actually supports earlier eyewitness testimony that Wilson shot at Michael Brown while he was running away, and appeared to hit him. And again, Melinek corrected the Post-Dispatch’s reporting when she spoke with O’Donnell last night (emphasis mine):
All but one of the gunshots, Melinek said, seem to have struck Brown in the front of his body, which is consistent with witnesses who said Brown had been facing Wilson when he was shot. Depending on any witnesses physical proximity to the shooting, Brown could have been turning to Wilson in surrender, stumbling toward him after being shot or charging him.
The shot to the back of Brown’s upper arm, Melinek said, suggested he could have been shot from behind.
As of this writing, the story is still up and uncorrected at St. Louis Today. It’s headed by the screen cap posted above, from WPIX News in New York. This is despite the fact that Dr. Melinek has disputed their story, saying it was full of “inaccurate and misleading quotes,” and gone on television to correct the record. Frankly, I don’t expect them to make the corrections. not do I expect the Washington Post or the various other newspapers, websites and blogs to do the right thing. You’re going to hear that the autopsy proves Michael Brown was going for Darren Wilson’s gun and that he didn’t have his hands up. But at least you’ll know where the misinformation came from and where you can find the correction.