Why do autopsy reports matter? Because they are often the most critical piece of evidence in murder cases. Autopsy reports produced by specially trained medical personnel are seen as neutral and objective documents, which give them political power. The preliminary findings of the Hennepin County medical examiner’s report, for example, used the veneer of scientific respectability to advance the outrageous claim that Floyd was partly responsible for his own death — something we know is untrue, given the subsequent reports. This has happened before. Over 100 years ago in India, the use of medical evidence in legal proceedings, which was supposed to secure justice, actually helped white murderers get off the hook. And it threatens to undermine justice again today.
The 19th-century British colonial state in India was a regime of conquest that sought legitimacy through the promise of fair and equal justice. The colonial legal system established in India included modern scientific methods of judicial inquiry — postmortems, toxicology, fingerprinting — that promised to make criminal investigations more trustworthy and reliable. And yet, Europeans who murdered Indians found the scales of justice tilted in their favor. Those accused of killing Indians by bludgeoning them with sticks, straps, canes, swords, whips, bricks, kicks and fists routinely presented scientific proof in court that the deceased had died “accidentally.”
White murderers regularly used medical evidence to argue that Indians had frail constitutions and weak insides that made them susceptible to sudden death. The “diseased spleen defense” was the most infamous of these specious arguments. This argument contended that Indians had morbidly enlarged spleens that were predisposed to rupture from a slight blow or a fall. In trials of violent whites, which were invariably overseen by white judges before white juries, medical experts claimed that the internal weakness of the Indian body — rather than the external ferocity of the European attack — was the primary cause of death.
Medical evidence played a prominent role in these cases because science and technology were part of Britain’s civilizing mission. The expansion of the British Empire in the 19th century was justified by the claim that Anglo-Saxons had a moral duty to clean, heal and modernize the “dark corners of the earth” by advancing the reach of railways, hospitals and Western medicine. But medical knowledge and practice in British India, including the use of medical evidence in legal proceedings, reflected racist attitudes about Indian bodies and Indian culture. An English newspaper warned its readers that “Englishmen ought to refrain from striking natives much on the same principle that would restrain them from aiming a blow at a cripple … the average constitution of natives does not fit them for rough treatment.”
For example, in 1903, W.A. Bain, a white tea planter, was tried for killing a worker named Lalsu. No one disputed that Bain had tied up Lalsu and beaten him with a stirrup leather until he fell unconscious and died. Bain was charged with culpable homicide and tried before a jury of white planters. The case turned on the expert testimony of Dr. Candler, who was a social acquaintance of Bain’s. Although Lalsu appeared well outwardly, Candler claimed he was in “weak health” and suffered from heart and lung disease. Bain was acquitted of homicide. Convicted of simple hurt (a lesser offense), he was sentenced to only six months of imprisonment without hard labor.
Such cases sparked public controversy. Bain’s supporters claimed that Europeans should not be punished so “harshly” for deadly assaults on Indians. After all, they argued based on race science, Indians might appear outwardly strong but they were inwardly weak. Indian critics noted with dismay that in the eyes of colonial law, it was virtually impossible for a European to murder an Indian.
In colonial India, whiteness functioned as a license to kill and law and medicine provided alibis. Modern instruments of “civilized” society, like autopsy reports, have historically legitimized racist structures of white supremacy. As the American anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells famously observed in 1883, “Those who commit the murders write the reports.”
The autopsy should be viewed with this historical context in mind: white power in 19th-century India and 21st-century America, both former British colonies, are built upon the twin piers of law and violence. The autopsy uses the idea of the inwardly weak, the unknowingly frail, the invisible “underlying health conditions” to exonerate white murderers who kill out of disregard for black lives.
The Floyd case sits on a long historical continuum of cases involving legal and extralegal violence against black and brown people in the United States and across Britain’s global empire. A 21st-century version of the “diseased spleen defense” lurks in the shadows of the Hennepin County medical examiner’s autopsy report: Can Officer Chauvin be held responsible for the death of a man with invisible “underlying health conditions”? Although Chauvin’s trial has not yet begun, it appears that a racial wrench may have been introduced into the wheels of justice.
The past is neither dead nor past. The threat of white violence, which sustains white power in subtle and imperceptible ways, sometimes erupts hideously into plain view. Then we see Bain. Or Derek Chauvin, hand in pocket, casually kneeling on the neck of a man pinned to the pavement for nine agonizing minutes as he calls for his dead mother and moans, “I can’t breathe.”