A forensic pathologist quoted in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch story about the shooting death of Michael Brown said some of her statements concerning the autopsy were taken out of context.
Judy Melinek was quoted about the volatile case in which Brown — black, 18 and unarmed — was fatally shot Aug. 9 by Darren Wilson, a white Ferguson, Mo., police officer.
Last week’s Post-Dispatch report, which focused on St. Louis County’s official autopsy of Brown and an accompanying toxicology report, relied on unidentified sources with knowledge of the county’s investigation of the shooting, leaked autopsy documents, and quotes from Melinek and others. The Post-Dispatch has said it stands by its reporting, including Melinek’s comments.
But Melinek said she did not assert that a gunshot wound on Brown’s hand definitively showed that he was reaching for Wilson’s gun during a struggle while the officer was in a police SUV and Brown was standing at the driver’s window, as the Post-Dispatch reported.
Melinek told The Washington Post that the autopsy facts could be viewed differently.
“Bullet trajectory analysis is complex, and you cannot interpret autopsy reports in a vacuum,” she wrote in an e-mail. “You need the scene data and the witness statements. When a forensic expert says something ‘appears to be’ or is ‘consistent with’ the findings, that doesn’t mean it is the only explanation. It means it is one possible explanation — one that fits the current forensic data. That opinion might change as other data comes to light.”
●Melinek, who is based in San Francisco, also challenged statements attributed to her that said the autopsy did not support that Brown was shot while fleeing or had his hands up when he was killed.
The idea that Brown was trying to surrender has fueled much of the outrage over the shooting.
In her e-mail, Melinek, who is also an assistant clinical professor of pathology at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center, wrote in detail about one of at least six shots that hit Brown: a bullet to his right arm that “goes back to front.”
While noting that “it would not be consistent with the standard ‘hands up palms front’ surrender position,” Melinek said the wound could have happened in several ways.
It “could be when he was running away if his arm was positioned with the lower back forearm exposed toward the shooter,” she wrote.
“This wound could have occurred while Mr. Brown’s hands were in the air — but not with his palms facing front. If Mr. Brown’s hands were up when this shot hit him, then the back of his right forearm would need to be facing the officer, and the arm would need to be slightly extended at the elbow, to account for the ‘slightly upward’ trajectory.”
Elements of the autopsy report and other leaks about Wilson’s account also appeared in the New York Times and The Washington Post. The Post’s article quoted from the Post-Dispatch’s interview with Melinek.
The article also quoted Victor W. Weedn, chairman of the George Washington University department of forensic sciences, who said the autopsy report was not conclusive about whether Brown’s hands were up at the time of the shooting.
Post-Dispatch editor Gilbert Bailon has defended the paper’s reporting.
“We think that we reported it accurately,” Bailon told Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple last week about the paper’s Melinek interview.
Referring to an appearance by Melinek on MSNBC’s “The Last Word With Lawrence O’Donnell” after the Post-Dispatch article was published, Bailon said she faced criticism for her interview with the paper. “If she feels that there are other possibilities for what happened, that’s her prerogative,” he said.
The Post-Dispatch has updated its report with an editor’s note saying that Melinek “has since sought to qualify” her comments.
Melinek has also posted an account of her exchange with the Post-Dispatch on her blog.
The shooting sparked explosive protests in the days immediately afterward, and demonstrations have continued as the St. Louis area awaits a grand jury decision on whether to charge Wilson.