A third autopsy was conducted on Monday on the body of Michael Brown, the black teenager shot by a police officer on 9 August in Ferguson, Missouri. Violent clashes have broken out between police and Ferguson residents over the killing, with witnesses and police putting forward different versions of what happened.
Did Brown have his arms up when he was shot? Was he running towards police? The third autopsy, ordered by federal authorities, may not clarify what happened. “It is unlikely to be necessary,” says Michael Graham, a forensic pathologist at St Louis University, and will not find anything significantly different from the original one performed on the day Brown died.
The first autopsy, conducted by St Louis County Medical Examiner Mary Case, confirmed police accounts – that the 18-year-old was killed by gunshot wounds – though the number of shots that hit Brown was not made public. Full details of the first autopsy are still under wraps. Brown’s family requested their own autopsy, which was performed by veteran medical examiner Michael Baden.
Baden, former chief medical examiner for New York, testified in the O.J. Simpson case, and chaired the panel reinvestigating the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. He has conducted some 20,000 autopsies. His preliminary report shows nine gunshot wounds: four on the right arm, three on the head and two on the chest – with no wounds on the back. This appears to support the claim of the police officer who shot Brown, Darren Wilson, who says Brown was facing him when he fired. But other interpretations have been put forward. Dorian Johnson, a friend of Brown’s who was with him at the time, describes him being shot in the back.
In a press briefing after the autopsy, Baden said he needed more forensic evidence. “From a science point of view, we can’t determine which witnesses’ statements are consistent with the findings,” he said. “Given this wound pattern, you could come up with a thousand positions and scenarios,” Graham says.
Baden states that Brown was shot at least six times, and the last bullet entered the top of his bowed head, killing him instantly. But only three bullets were found in the body. The third autopsy, requested by federal authorities, may not be able to resolve the questions, since damage caused by the first and second autopsy may mean the third is compromised.
Several pathologists have aired their scepticism at Baden’s preliminary results. “It may be possible to account for these wounds with only three bullets, and not six as suggested,” says UK Home Office forensic pathologist Ben Swift, although he stresses that he was only working from images made public by Baden.
Another complicating factor is embalming. Brown’s body was embalmed after the first autopsy, which may limit the information discernable from the gunshot wounds, as the colour and texture of the body is altered.