Renowned forensic pathologist Wecht critical of 3rd autopsy in Ferguson death

| Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, 10:51 p.m.

An autopsy the federal government conducted Monday on the body of a black Missouri man killed last week by a white police officer will do little to shed light on what happened in the fatal shooting that has sparked race-fueled protests and violence, said renowned forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht.

“The federal government is to be criticized for not being more on the ball,” Dr. Wecht, 83, told the Tribune-Review about the death of Michael Brown.

The 18-year-old died on Aug. 9. Authorities said Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson, 28, fatally shot him in the street near his home. Results from an initial autopsy county officials performed remain unknown. The cause of death was gunshots in the head and chest.

A spokeswoman for the county medical examiner in Missouri said federal authorities completed an examination of Brown's body on Monday — the same day a lawyer for Brown's family released details of a second, private autopsy.

The latter included a revelation that Wilson shot Brown six times, including twice in the head.

Attorney General Eric Holder said “one of the most experienced medical examiners in the United States military” was performing the federal autopsy.

Wecht, who is not involved in the case, said federal doctors and investigators should have participated in the second autopsy instead of conducting a third.

“The problem you have is that any time you perform an autopsy, you dissect the body. You alter the anatomy. By the time you get to a third autopsy, things are not as they were during the first two,” Wecht said. “I don't think anything more will be learned from the third autopsy. They should have worked with the family.”

President Obama on Monday said he dispatched Holder to Ferguson to meet with authorities, FBI agents and Justice Department officials investigating the case. Holder was to arrive on Tuesday.

The president urged people to protest peacefully, and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon ordered National Guard troops to go to the St. Louis suburb to restore order. A mandatory nighttime curfew was lifted as some National Guard troops began patrolling key intersections on Monday, when Obama spoke with Nixon by telephone.

“It's clear that the vast majority of people are peacefully protesting,” Obama said during a White House new conference. “A small minority is not.”

The Justice Department has not taken over the criminal investigation but is conducting a civil-rights investigation into Brown's death. The ACLU asked for a review of the use of force in Ferguson, condemning what it contends is police abuse of power.

There weren't any signs of a struggle on Brown's body, said Dr. Michael Baden, the former chief medical examiner in New York City who performed the private autopsy. Brown appeared to have been shot at least six times from a distance, and all but one shot to the top of his head that pierced his skull were most likely survivable, he said.

Baden said the fatal shot likely occurred when Brown was leaning forward or bending over.

Wecht said Brown, who was 6-foot-3, could only have been shot in the top of the head if the officer “was in a tree or 7-foot tall” unless the teen was falling to the ground — which he concluded was the most likely situation.

The finding that one bullet hit Brown's eye, went through his jaw and entered his chest supports the theory that he was bent over, the top of his head facing the officer, Wecht said.

An inquest should be conducted to determine where the shots were fired, where the casings were recovered and to collect witness accounts of what happened and other details that cannot be determined by autopsies, said Wecht, who routinely conducted such investigations during two stints as Allegheny County coroner.

“We conducted inquests in all police-related deaths,” Wecht said.

It is unclear what will happen in Missouri or whether criminal charges will be filed by state or federal officials, said Wecht, who has been involved in numerous high-profile death cases, including John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Elvis Presley, Chandra Levy, Laci Peterson, Anna Nicole Smith and JonBenet Ramsey, among others.

“But you can't stop the family from filing a civil-rights lawsuit,” Wecht said. “And they will file one.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or

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