By Elaine Magliaro
My curiosity was aroused the other day when I read several news reports about “selective” grand jury leaks and forensic experts’ analyses of Michael Brown’s official autopsy report. Many of the reports were based on information provided in an article that was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch earlier this week. I didn’t think that the Post-Dispatch article really provided much new information…or evidence in the case. It did appear to me, however, that the article was an effort to give credence to Officer Wilson’s version of what happened on the day he shot Michael Brown and to call into question the accounts of several people who were eyewitnesses to the killing of the unarmed teen.
In their St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, authors Christine Byers and Blythe Bernhard quoted renowned forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek who had done an analysis of Michael Brown’s official autopsy report.
Byers and Bernhard:
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.”
Sources told the Post-Dispatch that Brown’s blood had been found on Wilson’s gun.
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.
She said Brown was facing Wilson when Brown took a shot to the forehead, two shots to the chest and a shot to the upper right arm. The wound to the top of Brown’s head would indicate he was falling forward or in a lunging position toward the shooter; the shot was instantly fatal.
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.
Dr. Melinek, however, claimed that her analysis was taken out of context and partly misconstrued. She said that “snippets” from her conversation with a reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch were “inaccurate and misleading.” She even wrote a blog post on the subject:
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 read the report, and spent half an hour on the phone with the reporter explaining Michael Brown’s autopsy report line-by-line, and I told her not to quote me – but that I would send her quotes she could use in an e mail. The next morning, I found snippets of phrases from our conversation taken out of context in her article in the Post-Dispatch. These inaccurate and misleading quotes were picked up and disseminated by other journals, blogs, and websites.
This is the text of my actual email exchange with Post-Dispatch health and medical news reporter Blythe Bernhard:
“From: “Dr. Judy Melinek”
Date: October 21, 2014 at 5:53:21 PM PDT
To: Blythe Bernhard
Subject: Re: media request
Great talking to you. Here are the quotes:
“The autopsy report shows that there are a minimum of 6 and maximum of 8 gunshot wounds to the body. 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. The chest wounds are going front to back, indicating that Mr. Brown was facing the officer when he was shot in the torso, then collapsed or leaned forward exposing the top of his head. 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. The tissue fragment on the exterior of the officer’s vehicle appears to be skin tissue, but only DNA analysis would confirm if it is from Mr. Brown or the officer. It is ‘lightly pigmented’ but even African-American skin can appear lightly pigmented on a small microscopic section, depending on what part of the body it came from.”
This is how I was quoted in the Post-Dispatch the next day:
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.” Sources told the Post-Dispatch that Brown’s blood had been found on Wilson’s gun. 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.
Notice the difference? There’s a big difference between “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” and “he’s going for the gun.”
In her blog post, Dr. Melinek said that she was fortunate to have had an opportunity to set the record straight when she appeared on Lawrence O’Donnell’s program The Last Word on MSNBC. She added that O’Donnell allowed her “to explain the autopsy findings clearly and in context—if not in full.” She said she was also extremely grateful “to Tyrmaine Lee, whose companion article to last night’s Last Word segment…serves as an excellent corrective to the Post-Dispatch article.
Here’s a link to Tyrmaine Lee’s article: Darren Wilson’s lawyer speaks out on leaked Brown autopsy.
And here’s an interesting tidbit of information: Christine Byers, co-author of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch article that I referenced above, is the same reporter who tweeted about witnesses corroborating Darren Wilson’s version of events in Michael Brown’s killing while she was on medical leave from the paper in August:
Police sources tell me more than a dozen witnesses have corroborated cop’s version of events in shooting #Ferguson
According to Justin Baragona (Politicus USA), the reporter’s tweet “set off a firestorm due to a number of media outlets reporting it as fact because of her position as crime reporter for The Post.” Baragona said it was revealed later that Byers was, “in fact, on medical leave and was just tweeting out an unfounded rumor.” The Post-Dispatch issued a correction—and Byers later tweeted that her earlier tweet “did not meet the paper’s standards.”
To say that she is seen with a bit of scrutiny by many in and around Ferguson is putting it lightly. The autopsy article will likely be seen as incredibly biased by some due to her history, especially as she focused on traces of marijuana found in Brown’s system and interviewed forensic experts (but not the county medical examiner, who refused comment) who stated that the autopsy supported Wilson’s statements.
Baragona wrote that a number of events that occurred last Tuesday “seemed to foreshadow the inevitable non-indictment of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown on August 9th.” He added, “While there had been leaks in recent days providing information from the federal and county investigations into the shooting, Tuesday served up the culmination of what appears to be a deliberate effort by prosecutors, police and government officials to change public opinion towards Wilson and set the stage for him to walk.”
On Thursday morning, radio host and CNN contributor Mo Ivory told the network “that the leaking of the Michael Brown autopsy and information about African American witnesses during the grand jury hearing, both of which reportedly confirm Officer Darren Wilson’s account of the shooting, sure was suspicious. Ivory claimed it was “all an attempt to continue to paint Michael Brown in a negative manner, to set up a defense for officer Wilson.” She added, “It’s really disturbing that this is the manner in which the information is coming out.”
Ivory also noted that Michael Brown’s family “had been asking for the St. Louis county autopsy for months, yet it got leaked instead to the St. Louis Dispatch.”
CNN Mo Ivory on Leaked Reports on Ferguson’s Mike Brown 10/23/14
Jessica Lussenhop of Riverfront Times reported that RFT reached “Eric Davis, Brown Jr.’s cousin, and a family spokesman, to get their reaction to the leaks.” Lussenhop said that Brown’s family “wants to know why none of the leaked information points to any possible culpability on Wilson’s part — specifically why he shot as many times as he did outside of his vehicle, his toxicology report or his record as a police officer prior to joining the Ferguson department.” She said that the family is “also very concerned about how the new accounts differ from the initial narrative provided by Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson, saying, ‘It’s like they’re fabricating the story as they go along.’ He called their investigation ‘bungled.’”
What Michael Brown’s autopsy report reveals about his death (Judy Woodruff discusses the forensic evidence and its limitations with Dr. Judy Melinek of the University of California, San Francisco, on PBS Newshour.)
Official autopsy shows Michael Brown had close-range wound to his hand, marijuana in system (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Expert: My Michael Brown Autopsy Analysis Was Taken ‘Out Of Context’ (Talking Points Memo)
Forensic Sound Bites & Half-Truths (Dr. Judy Melinek’s Blog)