Black Lives Matter protesters stage a demonstration in front of the offices of Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert on April 4. They were demanding justice for Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man shot and killed by Sacramento police on March 18. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Black Lives Matter protesters stage a demonstration in front of the offices of Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert on April 4. They were demanding justice for Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man shot and killed by Sacramento police on March 18. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Dueling Autopsies Stir Controversy Over Sacramento Police Shooting of Stephon Clark

Dueling Autopsies Stir Controversy Over Sacramento Police Shooting of Stephon Clark

The official Sacramento County coroner's report released Tuesday on the police shooting death of Stephon Clark contradicts some of the medical findings and most of the opinions of a private forensic pathologist hired by Clark's family, who announced to a bank of news reporters a month ago that the 22-year-old, unarmed black man wasn't facing the officers when they opened fire on March 18.

“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,” Dr. Bennet Omalu said on March 30, less than two weeks after Clark's death.

Neither Omalu nor civil rights attorney Ben Crump provided an actual copy of the private autopsy report, and a lawsuit on behalf of Clark's family expected a month ago has yet to be filed. Omalu did not respond on the record to requests for comment. Attorneys representing Clark's family did not respond by publication deadline.

"When an attorney has a pathologist present their findings before they have all the information, they’re taking certain risks, and among those risks are the physical information on the body may be misinterpreted and errors can be made," said forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek, who is not involved in the Stephon Clark case.

"The other reason that they might want to do this is in order to counter some sort of narrative or information that’s been released by the police agencies, so they want to have their version of events out there. The problem is the accuracy may not be there."

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Omalu's findings further inflamed anger over Clark's death, who police officers said on body-camera footage was advancing toward them with something in his hand they thought was a gun. Clark did not have a gun. A cellphone was discovered next to his body.

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.
Dr. Bennet Omalu and attorney Ben 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)

The officers who shot Clark on the evening of March 18 were responding to reports of a man breaking into cars in a South Sacramento neighborhood. A sheriff's department helicopter spotted the suspect in a backyard and reported that he broke a sliding glass door on a house before he ran into a neighboring backyard -- behind his grandparents' home.

The officers confronted Clark there at approximately 9:30 p.m. One of them said “Show me your hands! ... Gun, gun, gun!” just before both officers fired a total of 20 rounds at Clark.

The officers have been identified by a civil rights attorney with knowledge of the case, but their names were withheld by the Sacramento Police Department, which cited death threats made against the officers.

Sacramento County Coroner Kimberly Gin wrote in a cover letter to the coroner's report that the private autopsy performed by Omalu presented "erroneous information."

The coroner's office went to great lengths to counter the narrative presented by Omalu. Three Sacramento County forensic pathologists, including chief forensic pathologist Jason Tovar reviewed and signed the findings of Dr. Keng-Chih Su, who performed the official autopsy on Clark's body.

The coroner also retained Dr. Gregory Reiber to review the findings. He used to work for Sacramento County, according to the Sacramento Bee.

"It is clear from review of the written report and photographic documentation that Stephon Clark was struck by seven bullets, not by eight as claimed by Dr. Omalu in his press conference statements and as shown on his autopsy diagram," Reiber wrote in his report, adding that Omalu mistook an exit wound on the left side of Clark's chest for an entrance wound.

"This is a significant error, as it leads to incorrect conclusions regarding the relative positions of the victim and shooters during the event."

This March 18 photo shows Stephon Clark the afternoon before he died in his grandmother's backyard in Sacramento.
This March 18 photo shows Stephon Clark the afternoon before he died in his grandmother's backyard in Sacramento.

Omalu presented a theory that the wound on the left side of Clark's chest was the first shot that struck him, spinning his body so that his back was toward the officers, and continuing to spin clockwise as subsequent bullets hit him. Omalu said a gunshot wound to the front of Clark's left thigh could have been the last shot to him.

Reiber wrote that Omalu's conclusions about the order of the shots were "untenable" based on his review of officers' body-camera and helicopter video footage made public by the Sacramento Police Department on March 21.

Reiber said the shot to Clark's left thigh was "most likely the first shot, sustained either as Clark was walking toward the officers' position with his left thigh raised, or possibly in the crouching position."

"At no time does the video show Clark to have the left side of his body facing the officers' position as shots are fired, nor does the video show him turning around from a left-facing position, still upright, and putting his back squarely toward the officers as there were further shots fired which then dropped him," Reiber wrote. "The video evidence provides clear refutation of Omalu's description of Clark's body positioning during the shooting as described in his press conference statements."

Reiber's analysis of the videos aligns with KQED's, which found that Clark appeared to be moving toward the officers in the moments before they opened fire.

Melinek said it's actually pretty common for forensic pathologists to have differing opinions about the same death.

"It’s not unusual," she said. "You can have two reputable, highly competent, board certified forensic pathologists look at the same set of data -- meaning trajectories in a gunshot wound case -- and consider different ancillary data like information from the scene and put different weight on it and come to different conclusions."

Toxicology tests show Clark had alcohol, codeine, cocaine and marijuana in his system, as well as anti-anxiety medication.

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