Crime Scene Medical Examiner Took No Measurements, Photos of Brown

A demonstrator holds a sign during a demonstration following the grand jury decision in the Ferguson, Missouri shooting of Michael Brown. Stephen Lam/Reuters

Before the grand jury made the decision not to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing African-American teenager Michael Brown, they heard testimony from around 60 witnesses, including Wilson. Of those 60, three were medical examiners; many of the details known about the moments after Brown’s death came from the only examiner that witnessed the crime scene. That medical examiner, who was not named, arrived at the scene after the detective, and strangely, did not take any photographs.

The detective, whose name was also redacted, testified before the grand jury. He was asked, “So when you arrived [at the crime scene,] the medical examiner had not been notified?” The detective explained, “To my knowledge, no. Sergeant [redacted] informed me that they had not been.… My main concern was making sure the medical examiner was dispatched.… If the suspect is deceased, then the next step would be to contact the medical examiner.” It’s unclear from the testimony why the sergeant did not contact the medical examiner himself.

The first medical examiner who testified described his role as the “eyes and ears of our pathologist” at the scene of the crime. Pathologists are not dispatched out to the field, so the medical examiner goes “to the scenes for them.” An examiner generally brings a camera along with tools to establish time of death and to collect evidence. His or her job is then to write a report for the pathologist. In the case of Brown, the on-scene examiner’s report included “initial contact with the reporting officer, the reporting person, the location, what I saw when I got there, the condition of the body and a paragraph or two on witness statements.”

He received the call to come to the crime scene at 1:30 p.m. and arrived by 2:30 p.m. The examination did not begin until around 3:30 p.m. as officers set up placards (to mark evidence), gathered evidence and photographed the scene. “Other officers are responding to the scene, St. Louis County detectives, their ID unit, that may take anywhere from 30 minutes to several hours before I could actually get in and actually see the body,” he testified.

When the examiner arrived, the body was covered in several white sheets, face down. “[Police officers] don’t actually examine [the body,] they just take photographs. They don’t touch the body until I get there, and I can’t touch the body until the detectives get there. We kind of do it in tandem. We don’t want to disturb the scene,” explained the examiner.

The examiner noted that a crowd had gathered around the crime scene and were “voicing their concerns at what is going on, why is this taking so long, things of that nature.… I assume the body was laying out there too long, they didn’t like the body being out there.”

According to the examiner, Brown’s grandmother expressed concern that the body was laying in the street for too long. “I explained to her, you know, it takes a thorough investigation and crowd control, just getting everybody into the scene was taking time to do that and once everybody is here, we can get our information that we need and the evidence collected and then we can be out of here. Once everything starts, it doesn’t take long,” testified the examiner. “She seemed fine with that, and she said she is going to walk around the crowd and try to get people to move back.”  

Though the medical examiner was able to write his report, he lacked a key piece of information: photographs. “My battery in my camera died,” the medical examiner testified. The St. Louis County Police Department identification unit was able to take photographs, which the pathologist could access by request. It is not the policy of the police department to have cameras charged at all times.

The medical examiner also did not take any measurements at the crime scene, “Because you didn’t need to?” he was asked, “Correct,” he replied. “I got there, it was self-explanatory what happened. Somebody shot somebody. There was no question as to any distances or anything of that nature at the time I was there.” From an examination of the body and discussions with officers on the scene, the examiner determined the body had not been moved from the time of death.

Cornell professor and legal expert Jens David Ohlin told Newsweek that while it may seen initially strange the examiner did not take any measurements, his role was to focus on the body. “I think the location of both individuals is crucial for the investigators, but in case of the coroner determining the cause of death and making a medical and forensic judging, it isn’t clear whether the location was essential. It is an important legal judgment, so it fell to the police investigators.”

The examiner may have also lacked the information needed to take proper measurements, “He did not have anything to measure from that distance, as there was no fixed landmark so to where Officer Wilson was standing,” says Ohlin. “He clearly took note of where Brown was when he died but how do you measure the distance between Wilson and the body when you don’t know where Wilson was? He can't measure the distance between two points when you don't know one of the points. You don’t know this until someone interrogates Wilson, and that is the job of the police investigators.”

At the scene, the examiner counted nine gunshot wounds: “One on top of the head, one to the right forehead, one around the eye, and then one in the neck, close to the neck/chest area, one on the right side and the rest in the arm and one in the head.” His body was searched, and the examiner found “two lighters, two $5 bills and a small bag of marijuana, or what appeared to be marijuana. It was a green substance, grass, looks like marijuana to me.” The examiner then put the contents back into Brown’s pockets.

The investigation at the scene lasted for several hours and the examiner felt it went as it should’ve. When asked, “At any time did anyone, whether it is a police officer or anyone else, did you feel that they were preventing you from doing your job the way you thought it should be done?” he replied, “No ma’am.” 

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