Unarmed black father had his back turned when Sacramento police opened fire, says renowned pathologist Bennet Omalu
At the moment of the great revelation, two poster boards were turned like sacred tablets to show the truth of what had been done to Stephon Clark’s body.
As the digital cameras shuddered, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist with a reputation for taking David-versus-Goliath stands against the National Football League and San Joaquin County sheriff, approached the podium, ready to deliver another grim sermon about the violence the state inflicts upon individuals.
One day earlier, several hundred people turned out on a blue-sky morning to memorialize Clark, a 22-year-old father of two, gunned down in his grandparents’ backyard by two police officers acting on tragically wrong assumptions. On March 18, officers were chasing down reports of a suspect breaking car windows in the south Sacramento neighborhood of Meadowview. A sheriff’s helicopter flying overhead directed Officers Terrence Mercadal and Jared Robinet to a man hopping a fence into a backyard. The officers jogged around the side of the house to find Clark holding a cellphone they say they mistook for a gun. Video footage released by the Police Department shows that Mercadal and Robinet didn’t identify themselves as police before unleashing 20 rounds.
On Good Friday—24 hours after his burial—Clark’s obituary was still being written: The unarmed black man had his back turned to officers when they opened fire, Omalu said during a leaden press conference inside the lobby of the South Sacramento Christian Center.
“There were a total of eight gunshot wounds,” Omalu said. “Six of the bullets … exhibited gunshot wound entrances of the back, meaning he was shot in the back six times.”
Over a generic illustration of the male anatomy, eight red dots marked where the bullets entered. If you looked just right, you could mistake the dots for a constellation that has long affected the fates of black men in America.
Community activist Berry Accius describes it as a dark inheritance, passed on from one generation of African-Americans to the next. Standing outside Clark’s memorial service last week, Accius said it is time to rewrite that fault in our stars.
“The thing about this one, we’re not gonna just let it be passed onto them where they bear that burden,” Accius said of the next generation. “It’s like, no, we’re going to fight together to dismantle it, to create such an impactful change that Sacramento could actually be a model of what policing looks like nationally. Imagine that.”
As Sacramento ends a third week of unrest over Clark’s death, rumblings of those changes are trembling the halls of power. Police Chief Daniel Hahn has already promised reforms as a result of this incident. More changes are afoot. This is a moment. And Stephon Clark and the unarmed black men whose deaths preceded him are prophets of an unwritten future.
According to Omalu, the first bullet punched through the right side of Clark’s back, near his vertebrae, and spun him around. The next six shots came in rapid succession, snaking down the right side of his back from the neck to near his spine. Clark was already down on the ground when a final round made his left leg jump into the air.
Any of the first seven bullets could have killed Clark, Omalu noted, and wreaked major damage on his body, perforating the walls around his heart, collapsing his lungs, and splintering bones and shredding major blood vessels in his right shoulder.
“Upon opening up his body, he received injuries to his aorta, the biggest vessel in the body, and he bled massively,” Omalu said.
Still, Omalu said, it took between three and 10 minutes for Clark to perish.
“Death was not instantaneous,” Omalu said.
Omalu said he couldn’t say whether quick medical attention could have spared Clark’s life.
Clark lay on the ground for approximately five minutes as Mercadal and Robinet reloaded their weapons and waited for backup units to arrive. When those units did, Clark was handcuffed and provided medical care. But it was too late by then.
The physical damage reportedly prevented Clark, a Muslim convert, from receiving a ritual washing of his body before burial, said Imam Omar Suleiman on Twitter.
“#StephonClark was massacred,” wrote Suleiman, who spoke at Clark’s March 29 memorial service at Bayside Boss Church in south Sacramento. “His body was in such bad shape that we couldn’t do the ritual washing (ghusl). The brothers did a substitute ritual (tayammum) and are horrified by the sight. We cannot allow this to keep happening.”
Omalu and Clark family attorney Benjamin Crump stressed that the findings of this independent autopsy contradicted the Police Department account that Clark was advancing toward officers.
“His back was facing the officers,” Omalu said. “So the proposition that has been presented, that he was assailing the officers, meaning he was facing the officers, is inconsistent with the prevailing forensic evidence, as documented at autopsy.”
The Police Department released a statement Friday saying it would be inappropriate to comment before the official coroner’s report is released and the county district attorney’s office completes its review of the shooting.
That could take a while.
The district attorney’s office has yet to release a single review of an officer-involved shooting or in-custody death that occurred during the 2017 calendar year.
The Clark family autopsy is fueling calls for criminal charges against the two officers responsible for Clark’s death. The local DA’s office last prosecuted an officer-involved shooting during Bill Clinton’s first term. In 1992, an ATF agent was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for the accidental shooting of a fellow agent. Before that, in 1988, the DA’s office prosecuted a Folsom Prison guard for the nonfatal shooting of an inmate. The guard was acquitted.
Law enforcement officers are judged by a different legal standard when it comes to using force. Past court rulings have made it so that the facts matter less than the officer’s perception of danger, which is why so few officers are prosecuted and even fewer are convicted of unjustified killings.
A bill last year to take use of force investigations away from districts attorney and make them the purview of the California Department of Justice died in committee after meeting heavy opposition from law enforcement groups. The bill’s author, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, hasn’t responded to SN&R’s requests about whether he is considering bringing the measure back.
There were several gasps and groans during Friday’s autopsy presentation, which was attended by African-American community leaders who are part of the new Build. Black Coalition. Before the press conference started, Pastor Les Simmons led attendees in a prayer for the Clark family, calling this “a lean-in moment” for all of Sacramento.
After Omalu’s sobering briefing, people milled through the South Sacramento Christian Center’s lobby in a daze. An African-American man stood staring at one of two poster-boards illustrating the gunshot wounds to Clark’s body. Staring for a long moment, he finally turned away with red eyes.
Outside, Pastor Simmons’ mother Deborah Simmons took the air. She said she was not prepared for what she saw inside that room.
“Just speechless,” she said softly. “Surprise and anger.”
A button on her coat signaled the new coalition she and others have created to drive political and financial investment in long-neglected communities of color. The “Build. Black” button conveyed a promise of a more equitable future not yet here.
Then, eyes still glistening, Deborah Simmons smiled and walked away.
Four days later, many of the same community leaders appeared beside McCarty and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber for a press conference inside the State Capitol. The lawmakers convened the gathering to announce new legislation intended to curb law enforcement’s use of deadly force throughout California. A copy of their bill wasn’t immediately available for review, but the lawmakers described the measure as a long-coming update to use of force policies, one they believed would benefit communities of color the most.
“I think we all know that this is not a new issue in African-American communities,” said Weber, a member of the California Legislative Black Caucus. “There is a special treatment that occurs when an officer meets an African-American. I’ve known it all my life.”
The San Diego Democrat indicated that male family members had been unfairly treated by law enforcement and pointed to the 1943 poem “Black Mother Praying in the Summer” as one example of how “deeply rooted in this society” the issue has been.
A media release from the lawmakers said that law enforcement officers shot and killed 162 people in California last year—half were armed with guns.
The bill is at the start of a long legislative road, but that didn’t stop reporters from asking whether a possible legal challenge could reach the Supreme Court.
Weber rooted her answer in the black American experience.
“I think we’re all aware that when the Constitution was written, it didn’t include a lot of people that looked like me,” she said. “So African-Americans have never been afraid of challenging the Constitution.”
Other interventions have already happened.
Unlike in past officer shooting inquiries, the California Attorney General’s Office is peering over the shoulder of DA Anne Marie Schubert, who is responsible for determining if criminal charges will be filed against the officers who killed Clark.
Noah Phillips, a local homicide prosecutor challenging Schubert’s reelection bid, said DAs should be leading the charge to ensure independent reviews of police shootings.
“Why does another young man of color have to die for us to get independent investigations?” Phillips said. “We should be in front of this.”
Standing on a strip of lawn outside the Bayside Boss Church last Thursday, Andre Young thought of Clark, the cousin he last saw two months prior.
“Wherever he at, he probably watching us right now, going ’Damn, this is crazy,’” Young reflected. “They out here showing this much love for him.”
All around the church, the question of what black men could possibly do to not get shot by the cops was being posed in myriad ways.
As a scrum of media raced to cover the Clark family’s emergence from the church, two men in graphic-print tees stood off to the side, on a little dirt embankment rimming the asphalt, speaking frankly like two friends bellied up to a bar.
“Until we do like the cartels do, this gonna keep happening,” Rosencrantz said.
“Mmm-hmm,” Guildenstern agreed.
“You don’t see them killing Mexicans now, do you?” Rosencrantz said.
“Nuhn-uh,” Guildenstern agreed.
“’Cause the cartel’d chop they heads off,” Rosencrantz said.
“Mmm-hmm,” Guildenstern agreed.
Those extreme viewpoints have their origins in deep frustrations and long-ignored pleas for help.
Back in 2014, Accius and others were warning local leaders that the ingredients for what was unfolding in Ferguson were present here, in Sacramento. Accius says those warnings fell on apathetic ears.
“Every major murder that police did from Tamir Rice to Sandra Bland to Eric Garner, right, to Alton Sterling, every one just got closer and closer and closer and closer to home,” Accius said. “Freddie Gray, closer and closer and closer to home. … All these are tipping points.
“So I always go back to 2014. I came to you guys and said we are one major moment to be national, and we are no different than Ferguson.”
“Now here we are,” Accius said.
Young said he won’t be able to stomach anything short of a conviction for the two officers who took his cousin.
“They didn’t have to shoot that man. They didn’t have to shoot my cousin 20 times. Empty the clip and then you reload again. C’mon man. Stop playing with me man,” Young said. “We ain’t waiting to go crazy, we waiting to hear the truth. If we don’t hear the truth.” Young pauses before adding, “Y’all gonna clean up the mess. Simple as that.”
Standing with Young, Accius hums his agreement.
“I got my young G’s back 100 percent. If not 200. Because, at the end of the day, it’s something that I’ve dealt with. And it’s something that my ancestors dealt with,” Accius said. “So he’s just a prodigal [son] of what it is.”