What Can a Third Autopsy Reveal About Michael Brown’s Death?

Stories from New Scientist.
Aug. 24 2014 7:15 AM

Why Become a Medical Examiner?

What autopsies can reveal about Michael Brown’s death.

Autopsy diagram showing where the gun shots hit Michael Brown.
Dr. Michael Baden points to an autopsy diagram showing where the gun shots hit Michael Brown.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Judy Melinek is a forensic pathologist and associate professor of clinical pathology at the University of California, San Francisco. Her book Working Stiff is about her work as a rookie medical examiner in New York during 9/11. She says we shouldn’t expect extra autopsies to shed new light on what happened in the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

The autopsy is playing a very big role in the case of Michael Brown. How can the public understand these findings?
The thing to keep in mind is that the investigation is still in its preliminary phase. Witness statements and details about the clothing aren't yet public.

Sometimes the wheels of justice, particularly in criminal cases, are slow. It requires time to collect evidence. Having answers right away might satisfy your curiosity, but they may not be correct. We don't want to incarcerate or even indict people unless we've got the evidence.

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There have been three autopsies in the Michael Brown case. Is that useful?
To most forensic pathologists, a second and third autopsy is a little absurd, especially when you're dealing with an independent office staffed by board certified forensic pathologists.

Can multiple autopsies be truly independent?
A second autopsy done by an attorney-hired pathologist is not independent. And it will be affected by the first, which changes the physical findings and alters the evidence. From a forensic perspective, it is only really useful if the first autopsy was not done properly. Also, to do it, the pathologist needs access to the original materials, otherwise changes caused in the body during the first autopsy can lead to mistaken conclusions. Unless you saw photos from before the body was cleaned and the wounds were cut into, you're going to misinterpret the findings.

What kind of relationship do medical examiners usually have with the police?
It is one of mutual respect but with a certain degree of suspicion as well. I have been in circumstances where the police have told me the conclusions of their investigation and I've told them: "That's not consistent with the autopsy findings." It is not in anyone's interest for me to lie. Everything gets reviewed and eventually becomes public, so, if there is a discrepancy, we let them know it.

What is the future of forensic pathology?
I'm worried about it, because in the United States there is very little consistency in death investigation. Counties that are short on funds tend to invest less than those in areas where there is more money and more crime. It's frustrating, because as well as affecting individuals, the inconsistency can lead to a disparity in public health recognition.

Why do people become medical examiners?
The whole point is prevention. It's not because we're somehow attracted to the gruesome. We do this because our ultimate goal is to give closure to the families and prevent additional deaths.

Have you taken any lessons from your work?
There are lessons about safety and staying healthy. That's why, in many places, our records are public, so we can track what kills people and what we can do to prevent it. But my work has mainly taught me to appreciate life. Every single death is a lesson about our temporary existence.

This article originally appeared in New Scientist.

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