A reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called me earlier this week, saying she had Michael Brown's official autopsy report as prepared by the St. Louis County Medical Examiner, and asking me if I would examine and analyze it from the perspective of a forensic pathologist with no official involvement in the Ferguson, Missouri shooting death. I read the report, and spent half an hour on the phone with the reporter explaining Michael Brown's autopsy report line-by-line, and I told her not to quote me - but that I would send her quotes she could use in an e mail. The next morning, I found snippets of phrases from our conversation taken out of context in her article in the Post-Dispatch. These inaccurate and misleading quotes were picked up and disseminated by other journals, blogs, and websites.
This is the text of my actual email exchange with Post-Dispatch health and medical news reporter Blythe Bernhard:
"From: "Dr. Judy Melinek"Date: October 21, 2014 at 5:53:21 PM PDTTo: Blythe BernhardSubject: Re: media requestGreat talking to you. Here are the quotes:"The autopsy report shows that there are a minimum of 6 and maximum of 8 gunshot wounds to the body. The graze wound on the right thumb is oriented upwards, indicating that the tip of the thumb is toward the weapon. The hand wound has gunpowder particles on microscopic examination, which suggests that it is a close-range wound. That means that Mr. Brown's hand would have been close to the barrel of the gun. Given the investigative report which says that the officer's weapon discharged during a struggle in the officer's car, this wound to the right thumb likely occurred at that time. The chest wounds are going front to back, indicating that Mr. Brown was facing the officer when he was shot in the torso, then collapsed or leaned forward exposing the top of his head. You can't say within reasonable certainty that his hands were up based on the autopsy findings alone. The back to front and upward trajectory of the right forearm wound could occur in multiple orientations and a trajectory reconstruction would need to be done using the witness statements, casings, height of the weapon and other evidence from the scene, which have yet to be released. The tissue fragment on the exterior of the officer's vehicle appears to be skin tissue, but only DNA analysis would confirm if it is from Mr. Brown or the officer. It is 'lightly pigmented' but even African-American skin can appear lightly pigmented on a small microscopic section, depending on what part of the body it came from."This is how I was quoted in the Post-Dispatch the next day:Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist in San Francisco, said the autopsy “supports the fact that this guy is reaching for the gun, if he has gunpowder particulate material in the wound.” She added, “If he has his hand near the gun when it goes off, he’s going for the officer’s gun.” Sources told the Post-Dispatch that Brown’s blood had been found on Wilson’s gun. Melinek also said the autopsy did not support witnesses who have claimed Brown was shot while running away from Wilson, or with his hands up.Notice the difference? There's a big difference between "The hand wound has gunpowder particles on microscopic examination, which suggests that it is a close-range wound. That means that Mr. Brown's hand would have been close to the barrel of the gun" and "he's going for the gun."
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to correct this, in my own words last night, when Lawrence O’Donnell invited me to appear as a guest on MSNBC. Mr. O’Donnell allowed me to explain the autopsy findings clearly and in context—if not in full. The show is called “The Last Word,” and Lawrence O'Donnell makes sure he gets it. Despite the guest-badgering and interruptions that are a signature of his television persona, however, Mr. O’Donnell did allow me to correct the record that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch created. I am even more grateful to Trymaine Lee, whose companion article to last night's Last Word segment (linked above) serves as an excellent corrective to the Post-Dispatch article.
In my memoir of forensic training, Working Stiff, I quote my mentor, Dr. Charles Hirsch, as saying that “the best way to respond to a reporter is with your hat. Put it on and walk away.”
I don't agree. I believe the best way to respond to a reporter is to give the reporter accurate, succinct quotes, and set the record straight if they misrepresent what you said.
Too many forensic pathologists are afraid of speaking out about their expertise, because they believe that all members of the press have a prepared agenda, or that professional reporters will misquote scientific experts to force a point that doesn't comport with the forensic evidence. But if we forensic pathologists all put on our hats and walk away, others who lack our medical training and experience will fill the void we leave. I want to make sure the reading and viewing (and tweeting) public have an opportunity to understand forensic science in the real world—what it can tell us, and what it can not. I'm not going to walk away.