Leaked autopsy raises questions about Michael Brown narrative

An autopsy leaked to the media could support the officer's claim that Michael Brown went for his gun, and it suggests that Mr. Brown didn't have his hands up 'in a standard surrender position,' according to one expert.

City of Ferguson/AP/File
In this Feb. 11, 2014 file image from video released by the City of Ferguson, Mo., officer Darren Wilson attends a city council meeting in Ferguson. Officer Wilson has told authorities that Michael Brown reached for the gun during a scuffle that ended in Mr. Brown's death.

The narrative surrounding Michael Brown’s death continues to evolve as a leaked autopsy report appears to support the claim that Mr. Brown at one point reached for Officer Darren Wilson’s gun. It also raises questions about whether Brown was raising his hands in surrender when he was killed.

The Aug. 9 shooting of Brown by Officer Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., has led to social unrest led by youths who have used raucous civil disobedience to protest what they see as the mistreatment of blacks by whites in authority.

The eyewitness accounts at the heart of those protests – that a white cop basically executed an unarmed black teenager holding his hands up in surrender – are now facing forensic scrutiny.

The autopsy leaked to the media Wednesday was one of three conducted on Brown. Two have now been made public. The first, done privately by the Brown family, suggested that the closest shot was fired from a foot away, while others were fired while Brown had his hands up or arms crossed.

The autopsy released Wednesday suggests that the closest shot was fired while Brown’s hand might have been only an inch from the gun, said Michael Graham, who is not part of the official investigation, to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which obtained the autopsy report.

The report “does support that there was a significant altercation at the car,” he said.

Other forensic evidence could also shed light on what happened moments later outside the car, where accounts vary in crucial ways. Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson, who has maintained that Wilson was the aggressor, told CNN that Brown ran away, then turned and put his hands up in surrender before Wilson killed him. A video of two construction workers who watched the shooting shows them shouting to police officers on the scene that Brown had his hands up. Other eyewitnesses have suggested that Brown may have been moving toward Wilson before being shot. The county’s preliminary investigation concluded that Brown was running toward the officer.

The newly leaked evidence is not conclusive, but the trajectory of one shot that hit Brown in the forearm suggests that Brown probably was not taking what the Post-Dispatch calls “a standard surrender position with arms above the shoulders and palms out” when he was shot, Judy Melinek, a San Francisco-based forensic pathologist, told the newspaper.

A toxicology report also concluded that Brown had marijuana residue in his system. 

Former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch told KMOX in St. Louis on Monday that the new evidence makes it “very unlikely” that Wilson will face charges.

The anonymity of the leaks has suggests that the release of information is being stage-managed to “start getting some of the facts out there to kind of let people down slowly,” Mr. Fitch said.

A former FBI assistant director, Ron Hosko, told CNN that the strategy could have a “beneficial effect” by “leading [protesters] to believe that there won’t be an indictment,” and thus potentially easing passions that have previously led to “battles in the street.”

As opposed to the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard needed to convict someone, grand juries only require that there’s “probable cause” that a crime was committed in order to indict, or bring charges. The grand jury is expected to decide by mid-November.

While the forensic facts may shift the dynamics of the story, the underlying inequities laid bare in the aftermath of the shooting remain, Gov. Jay Nixon pointed out this week.

On Tuesday, Governor Nixon announced the formation of a Ferguson Commission to address simmering economic and social inequities. He said he hopes the commission will lead to fundamental changes in Ferguson, a city where a majority-black population is policed by a nearly all-white police force.

"When there has been a clear vision of a better future and a well-marked path for progress, protests have yielded lasting change,” Nixon said in announcing the commission. “When there is only rage and despair, anguish and chaos follow.”

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