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What the forensic evidence says about Michael Brown’s death

October 23, 2014 at 6:40 PM EDT
The results of the autopsy on Michael Brown, the teenager shot and killed by a police officer 75 days ago, sparked a new round of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the official report was leaked to the press. Judy Woodruff discusses the forensic evidence and its limitations with Dr. Judy Melinek of the University of California, San Francisco.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Protests continue in Ferguson, Missouri, 75 days after teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by police.

The latest round last night was sparked after details from the official autopsy report of Brown conducted by the county were leaked to The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch.

Joining us now is Dr. Judy Melinek. She’s a forensic pathologist and associate professor of Pathology at the University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center. She reviewed the autopsy for The Post-Dispatch.

Dr. Melinek, thank you very much for joining us.

So you were provided with a copy of this autopsy report. What did you take away from it? What did you learn?

DR. JUDY MELINEK, University of California, San Francisco, Medical Center: What I got from the report was that there’s a gunshot wound of the thumb that is going from the tip of the thumb towards the wrist.

And that particular wound, they had microscopic sections of. So this is new information. There’s particulate material in that wound that is consistent with gunpowder. And we now know that there have been gunshots, one or two gunshots in the vehicle.

So that is most likely the shot that occurred while the struggle was occurring in the vehicle. And it indicates that the hand was in line with the gun, meaning that the thumb was pointing towards the muzzle of the gun, for that trajectory to make sense.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what does that tell us about what happened? Why is that significant information?

DR. JUDY MELINEK: It is significant only in that it’s different from what we had heard from the second autopsy.

Remember, the second autopsy was done after the first autopsy was completed by the Saint Louis Medical Examiner. And that’s done on a body that has been washed and been embalmed, and all of the evidence has been taken off of it as part of the primary independent autopsy.

So a second autopsy is not going to catch trace evidence such as this. And so this is different information because it confirms that a close-range gunshot wound occurred of the hand probably during the struggle in the vehicle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the second autopsy report, that refers to the autopsy that was commissioned by Michael Brown’s family, I think a week or two after the incident.

DR. JUDY MELINEK: That is correct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Can one conclude then, Dr. Melinek, from this how Michael Brown died?

DR. JUDY MELINEK: Well, we know he died from multiple gunshot wounds. That is not a question.

The issues in the case pertain to what we call trajectory analysis in forensics. So, when you have multiple eyewitnesses — and there have been multiple eyewitnesses — and they’re all giving different stories or slightly different stories, the question then becomes for the forensic pathologist is, do you look at the wounds on the body, and then how do you line them up, and how do those line up with the stories that you are being given?

And that is the information that is going to be presented to the grand jury, not just the witness testimony, but the forensic evidence. And it’s up to the grand jury to decide whether the forensic evidence is matching with the witnesses’ statements or not.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just to be perfectly clear about this, listening to what you have just said, what questions are answered by this autopsy report, and what questions have yet to be answered?

DR. JUDY MELINEK: Well, what’s answered is, we know that he died from multiple gunshot wounds. It confirms the number of gunshot wounds, to a minimum of six, a maximum of eight.

And it also shows us that there is a downward trajectory at the top of the head, which really makes sense under these circumstances, if Mr. Brown is leaning forward or moving forward with his head down. So, that way, the top of his head is exposed to the bullet and to the officer who is shooting at him.

So that can be interpreted in lots of different ways. It depends on what the witnesses say. It could be that some people would perceive that as he is collapsing or that he is surrendering and bending down. Or others could say that he is lunging or moving toward the officer.

You can have multiple interpretations that match up with the trajectories. There are also going to be multiple witness statements that don’t much up with the trajectories. And it’s really up to the grand jury to get all that information and synthesize it and make a decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the questions that cannot be answered by this are several. It’s, as you said, how far away — it’s not so much how far away the gun was, but what else was going on at that time.

DR. JUDY MELINEK: It’s also questions pertaining to, what else is at the scene? We don’t have the scene data. We don’t have the police reports. We don’t have all the witness statements.

There’s other information that hasn’t been gleaned. For instance, where were the casings? How distant was the officer actually from Mr. Brown when the shots started and when they ended? And then, also, how high is the weapon off the ground? How tall is the officer and the height of the muzzle when he is pointing it?

So all of these are data points. All of these — all of this is information that we still don’t have, and that should be presented in order to get a more nuanced picture, a more complete picture of what happened here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You have obviously dealt with a number of — many cases over the course of your career. Is it possible to say from this what the grand jury would take away from this?

DR. JUDY MELINEK: At this point, we can’t say what the grand jury is going to do.

And it’s going to depend on what they see. And they are sequestered. And some — they are going to be seeing evidence that we don’t see. All we have been given is what was apparently leaked. So it’s not a complete picture by any means. And their determination is going to be based on the complete set of data, not on just snippets of what we are seeing here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last question, Dr. Melinek.

Michael Brown’s family has said that they do not accept the results of this autopsy report by the Saint Louis County Medical Examiner or, they said, any account that comes from — an official account that supports what the police officer, Darren Wilson, has said.

My question to you is, how credible, how much can one count on the accuracy of this autopsy report or any autopsy report?

DR. JUDY MELINEK: I want to reiterate that medical examiners, forensic pathologists are not police. We’re not cops. We are independent practitioners. We’re physicians. And Saint Louis Medical Examiner is an independent agency and is part of the Department of Health, not the police.

They’re not in the business of covering up for the police. They’re in the business of collecting evidence and documenting it. And you have to understand that all that evidence eventually becomes public record. So whether a family trusts it or distrusts it — and it’s perfectly understandable that people will distrust public agencies when there has been a death in the police custody or an officer-involved shooting. That is understandable.

But these are physicians at the medical examiner’s office. And they are collecting the evidence and that evidence will be presented to the grand jury. And whether they indict or not, it will eventually all become public. So there will be complete scrutiny. There will be access to all that information. And it will eventually come to light. We just have to let the justice system do its thing, take its time, and be cautious and understanding as that happens.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dr. Judy Melinek at the University of California at San Francisco, we thank you.

DR. JUDY MELINEK: Thank you.