Updated Oct. 28, 2014, to add editor's note.
ST. LOUIS COUNTY • The official autopsy on Michael Brown shows that he was shot in the hand at close range, according to an analysis of the findings by two experts not involved directly in the case.
The accompanying toxicology report shows he had been using marijuana.
Those documents, prepared by the St. Louis County medical examiner and obtained by the Post-Dispatch, provide the most detailed description to date of the wounds Brown sustained in a confrontation Aug. 9 with Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson.
A source with knowledge of Wilson’s statements said the officer had told investigators that Brown had struggled for Wilson’s pistol inside a police SUV and that Wilson had fired the gun twice, hitting Brown once in the hand. Later, Wilson fired additional shots that killed Brown and ignited a national controversy.
The St. Louis medical examiner, Dr. Michael Graham, who is not part of the official investigation, reviewed the autopsy report for the newspaper. He said Tuesday that it “does support that there was a significant altercation at the car.”
Graham said the examination indicated a shot traveled from the tip of Brown’s right thumb toward his wrist. The official report notes an absence of stippling, powder burns around a wound that indicate a shot fired at relatively short range.
But Graham said, “Sometimes when it’s really close, such as within an inch or so, there is no stipple, just smoke.”
The report on a supplemental microscopic exam of tissue from the thumb wound showed foreign matter “consistent with products that are discharged from the barrel of a firearm.”
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.
She said Brown was facing Wilson when Brown took a shot to the forehead, two shots to the chest and a shot to the upper right arm. The wound to the top of Brown’s head would indicate he was falling forward or in a lunging position toward the shooter; the shot was instantly fatal.
A sixth shot that hit the forearm traveled from the back of the arm to the inner arm, which means Brown’s palms could not have been facing Wilson, as some witnesses have said, Melinek said. That trajectory shows Brown probably was not taking a standard surrender position with arms above the shoulders and palms out when he was hit, she said.
The county medical examiner, Dr. Mary Case, could not be reached. The assistant who performed the autopsy, Dr. Gershom Norfleet, relayed word that he would not comment.
That post mortem, conducted the morning after Brown’s death, comports in most ways with the findings of a private autopsy arranged by Brown’s family and made public Aug. 18.
In that one, Dr. Michael M. Baden, a nationally known forensic pathologist, said none of Brown’s wounds appeared to have been from shots fired at close range.
Baden noted then that there was no gunshot residue on the body, so it appeared to him that the muzzle of the weapon was at least one or two feet away. He said, “It could have been 30 feet away.”
A third autopsy was ordered by federal officials as part of their separate investigation of the shooting. Results of that one have not been revealed.
The county and private autopsies agree on the number and location of the wounds.
The official autopsy also confirmed that tissue from Brown was found on the exterior of the driver’s side of Wilson’s vehicle.
“Someone got an injury that tore off skin and left it on the car,” Graham said. “That fits with everything else that came out. There’s blood in the car, now skin on the car, that shows something happened right there.”
The toxicology test, performed by a St. Louis University laboratory, revealed tetrahydrocannabinol, THC for short, in Brown’s blood and urine.
Alfred Staubus, a consultant in forensic toxicology at the Ohio State University College of Pharmacy, said that THC could impair judgment or slow reaction times but that there was no reliable measurement to make those conclusions.
States that have legalized marijuana have struggled with the issue of how to measure impairment.
“The detection of THC in the postmortem blood of Michael Brown really indicates his recent use of marijuana (within a few hours) and that he may or may not have been impaired at the time of his death,” Staubus wrote in an email.
In an article that appeared last week on stltoday.com, Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist, was quoted as saying that the position of a right-thumb wound and gunpowder residue cited in the county autopsy of Michael Brown “supports the fact that this guy is reaching for the gun, if he has gunpowder particulate material in the wound. If he has his hand near the gun when it goes off, he’s going for the officer’s gun.”
Melinek has since sought to qualify those comments, saying that the autopsy report supports Officer Darren Wilson’s statement that Brown was reaching for the gun but that other scenarios are possible.