Dueling autopsies pit Sacramento County coroner against Stephon Clark family

Coroner’s consultant speculates that Clark was shot first in the thigh, but both reports agree he was mostly shot in the back

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the May 10, 2018, issue.

The black-and-white photo is graphic.

It shows Stephon Clark’s corpse facedown on a metal slab, his 22-year-old body plumped with rigor mortis and pocked with bloodless, nickel-sized craters where the copper-jacketed rounds plunged into him like asteroids hitting a doomed planet. There are three such craters on the right side of his back, one tucked under his right arm, one on the back side of his right shoulder and another bolted to the rear right side of his neck.

The six wounds helped end Clark’s life on March 18, when two police officers chasing a window-breaker opened fire on the young father, standing in his grandparents’ backyard with a cellphone.

That Clark was unarmed when officers sent 20 rounds at him is indisputable. How many of those rounds struck their target and where are the subject of dueling autopsy findings from the Clark family’s chosen pathologist and Sacramento County’s coroner.

On May 1, the coroner’s office released its long-awaited official report on Clark’s death. The basics remain the same, but the report pointedly took issue with the private autopsy by noted pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, who determined that Clark had been shot eight times, including six times in the back. The official autopsy concludes that Clark was shot seven times total, three times in the back.

In letters they knew would be public, Coroner Kimberly Gin and Dr. Gregory Reiber, a former county employee asked to review the autopsy report, criticized Omalu’s conclusions, with Gin tagging the private autopsy for “erroneous information.” Reiber, meanwhile, contradicted Omalu’s opinion that the first bullet struck Clark in his right side, when he was turned away from officers. Instead, Reiber posits, the first bullet probably struck Clark’s left thigh as he was either walking toward officers or crouched.

Reiber based this analysis, in part, on his review of footage from the officers’ body-worn cameras and a sheriff’s helicopter flying overhead, which show Clark falling to his knees and hands with his right side to the officers as they fire.

Omalu and the attorneys representing the Clark family took issue with the findings, claiming the county’s forensic pathologist didn’t perform a comprehensive enough autopsy.

Granted permission by the Clark family to release the autopsy photo, Omalu issued a statement saying, in part, “Experts may have different opinions, but a picture is a picture. A picture does not have an opinion.”

The coroner’s report, conducted by county pathologist Dr. Keng-Chih Su, also contains the kind of boilerplate language that can’t help take on unintended significance due to what it describes. In his summary of his external examination, Su writes: “The body is identified by toe tags and is that of an unembalmed refrigerated, adult male who appears about the reported age of 22 years. The body weighs 156 pounds, measures 68 inches, and is well-nourished. … Tattoos are present including: Letters of ‘Beloved’ and unknown figure at the right arm.”

This used to be Stephon Clark.