Independent Autopsy Finds Police Shot Stephon Clark in the Back

3 min
Dr. Bennet Omalu and attorney Benjamin Crump gave a press conference about the results of a private autopsy of Stephon Clark. Dr. Omalu's findings indicate Clark was shot in the side and back. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

Updated 3:10 p.m. Friday

Of the 20 bullets Sacramento police officers fired at Stephon Clark on the night of March 18, eight struck his body. Five of them lodged in his upper right back, one hit him toward the back of his left side, one shot through his neck and one penetrated his left thigh. That’s according to an independent autopsy made public Friday morning by Clark’s family.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, who conducted the autopsy on Clark's body Tuesday at the request of the family, said the fatal shots were those that hit Clark when he wasn't facing the officers.

“Any one of the shots could have killed him,” Omalu said.

The shot that hit Clark in the neck traveled from right to left, Omalu said. He was also struck in the front of his left thigh.

An independent autopsy rendering of Stephon Clark’s gunshot wounds.
An independent autopsy rendering of Stephon Clark’s gunshot wounds. (Julie Small/KQED)

Omalu’s examination follows the official autopsy performed by the Sacramento County coroner, which has yet to be released.

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Omalu revealed his preliminary findings at a press conference in Sacramento, where Clark’s family was expected to file a federal lawsuit Friday. As of Friday afternoon, the complaint was not yet filed.

Clark, a 22-year-old African-American man and the father of two small children, was shot in his grandparents’ South Sacramento backyard by two police officers responding to a report of someone breaking car windows in the neighborhood.

The officers were guided by a Sacramento County sheriff's helicopter as they chased Clark. One officer can be heard on body-camera video shouting, “Show me your hands! ... Gun, gun, gun!” immediately before the shooting began. Video taken from the helicopter shows most of the shots were fired after Clark collapsed to the ground face down. No weapon was found with Clark’s body -- only a cellphone.

Omalu, a forensic pathologist renowned for his discovery of a concussion-related brain disease in football players, said the first thing he noticed when he examined Clark’s body was that there were no fatal wounds on the front of the body. Omalu said he believes that shows that Clark was moving away from police when they fired.

The videos appear to show Clark advancing toward the officers before they fired, but Omalu dismissed the theory that he had faced or advanced toward the police with his phone outstretched in his hand.

“The proposition that has been presented that he [Clark] was assailing the officers -- meaning he was facing the officers -- is inconsistent with the prevailing forensic evidence as documented at autopsy,” Omalu said.

Generally, forensic pathologists cannot determine the order that bullets struck a body.

But based on the trajectory of the bullet wounds, Omalu presented a theory.

Turning his back to reporters, he said Clark was facing toward his grandparents' sliding glass door with his left side exposed to the officers when the first bullet hit him in the back of his left side.

Omalu then rotated clockwise, demonstrating that Clark could have then similarly turned and exposed his upper right back to the gunfire. Clark may have kept rotating, exposing him to the next bullet that shot through his neck from right to left.

Lastly, Omalu said Clark collapsed face down, with his head toward the officers. The bullet that pierced his left leg may have been the final one, Omalu said, and it could have struck Clark before or after he fell.

Omalu said Clark was likely still alive immediately after the volley of bullets, and perhaps alive when officers called out to ask if he was still armed.

“When you’re unresponsive that doesn’t mean you're dead,” Omalu said. “He didn’t die instantaneously. He died from blood loss. His middle vessel aorta was hit.”

Omalu estimated that it took three to 10 minutes for Clark to die. But while medical attention might have saved his life, Omalu said, “given the overkill nature of the shooting, the probability of survival was reduced by each gunshot wound.”

"Whether you're fatally wounded or not, you should receive immediate and timely medical and surgical intervention," Omalu said.

He ordered independent toxicology tests. The results are likely to take weeks. One part of Omalu’s autopsy that differs from the county coroner’s is that he removed and examined the spinal cord -- and found injuries that would have caused Clark to collapse, Omalu said.

The unarmed African-American man was hit eight times by Sacramento police bullets, six in his back, according to forensic pathologist hired by Clark’s family.
The unarmed African-American man was hit eight times by Sacramento police bullets, six in his back, according to forensic pathologist hired by Clark’s family. (Bert Johnson/KQED)

Second Autopsies Common in Police Shooting Deaths

Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic expert based in the San Francisco Bay Area, said second-opinion autopsies are frequently performed after a police shooting death.

"Generally, families will ask for a second autopsy when there is an inherent distrust of the system,” said Melinek, who has conducted secondary autopsies. "There is a concern amongst family members of the deceased that the medical examiner's office or that the coroner's office is part of law enforcement. And if it is a coroner's office or sheriff's coroner's office, it often is."

In 50 of California’s 58 counties, the coroner operates under the authority of the sheriff. Only eight counties -- mostly with big cities -- have independent, physician-led medical examiners to investigate sudden, suspicious or violent deaths.

“All officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths are in many cases really complicated because of the time pressure, the political pressure and the distrust that the families have of the work that we're doing,” Melinek said.