It’s still not clear what happened to Freddie Gray. Was he hurt during his arrest? Was he attacked by police in the back of that Baltimore Police Department van? Or did he try to injure himself, as documents obtained Tuesday by The Washington Post suggest?
One thing is certain, however. Freddie Gray did not have a preexisting spinal injury.
Yet that was the story circulating on a handful of conservative Web sites Tuesday. In an “exclusive” that quoted anonymous sources, the Web site the Fourth Estate reported that “Freddie Gray’s life-ending injuries to his spine may have possibly been the result of spinal and neck surgery that he allegedly received a week before he was arrested, not from rough [sic] excessively rough treatment or abuse from police.” The site claimed his injury was from a car accident.
“If this is true, then it is possible that Gray’s spinal injury resulting from his encounter with the Baltimore Police was not the result of rough-handling or abuse, but rather a freak accident that occurred when Gray should have been at home resting, not selling drugs,” the site reported right above images of documents pertaining to a civil lawsuit involving Gray.
“The police didn’t mistreat him at all; he mistreated himself,” the report concluded.
But the images on the Fourth Estate actually relate to Gray’s lead paint lawsuit, the Baltimore Sun revealed. An attorney representing the Gray family confirmed that the case concerned lead paint, not a spinal cord injury a week before Freddie Gray’s arrest.
“We have no information or evidence at this point to indicate that there is a prior preexisting spinal injury,” Jason Downs, an attorney representing one of Gray’s relatives, told the Sun. “It’s a rumor.”
And yet that rumor might have caused real damage in a country already polarized on the subject of race and the police. The story quickly spread to several other Web sites, such as Free Republic and the Conservative Tree House, which called Gray’s supposedly preexisting injury “a potential game changing discovery.” A site called New York City Guns ran the headline “Dead Baltimore Drug Dealer Had Spinal Surgery DAYS Before He Collapsed in Police Van (Rioters Say ‘OOPS’).”
“Boom! Seems legit,” a commenter wrote on the Conservative Tree House.
CNN guest journalist: "..there was nothing wrong with [Freddie Gray]." In fact, he'd had big medical pbms+major spinal surgery a wk earlier.
— Philip Schuyler (@FiveRights) April 29, 2015
After the Sun and others debunked the story, Free Republic apparently took it down. (Free Republic was criticized previously for linking to a bogus story about Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson suffering a facial fracture in his struggle with Michael Brown.) The Conservative Tree House updated its post by quoting and linking to the Sun but also tried to throw doubt onto the Gray family’s denial of a preexisting injury by calling the attorney’s statement “a little weird.”
The Fourth Estate, however, doubled down on its claims.
“Now, for the Baltimore Sun’s bogus ‘fact-check’ article today …” the site said. “The Baltimore Sun alleges that the story about pre-existing conditions from a car accident are untrue because the records we pointed to yesterday are related to a settlement over lead paint. Curiously enough, however, they mention the ‘Reason For Accident’ that Freddie Gray checked on his documents.”
(In documents related to his suit, Gray had checked a box next to “work injury, medical malpractice and auto accident” as the type of accident, the Sun reported.)
“That doesn’t sound like a lead paint settlement to us here at Fourth Estate,” the Web site continued. “Is it possible that Freddie Gray was in fact involved in a car accident previously in his life in which he was severely injured, never to be the same again? Yes, it is possible. Is it possible that Freddie Gray allegedly received a settlement from this injury, one which he later attempted to convert to a lump sum payment? Yes, it is possible. Is it possible that Freddie Gray allegedly had a history of back problems that required multiple, even if minor, surgeries that left him with a vulnerable spine? Yes, it possible.”