Latest News

Why the drugs in Stephon Clark's system probably won't matter much to the investigation

Comparing the two Stephon Clark autopsy reports

A side-by-side comparison of the two Stephon Clark autopsy reports - one by the Sacramento County coroner, the other by performed by Dr. Bennet Omalu for the Clark family - reveals several contradictions.
Up Next
A side-by-side comparison of the two Stephon Clark autopsy reports - one by the Sacramento County coroner, the other by performed by Dr. Bennet Omalu for the Clark family - reveals several contradictions.

According to a toxicology report released earlier this month, Stephon Clark had alcohol, marijuana and prescription drugs in his system the night two Sacramento officers shot and killed him in his grandmother's backyard.

But the drugs aren't likely to play a role in the decision to charge or exonerate the officers who killed the unarmed black man.

Two independent experts — one who believes the police acted appropriately, the other a noted legal scholar critical of racial profiling — told The Sacramento Bee that Clark's toxicology report released by Sacramento County's coroner on May 1 likely will prove irrelevant in the ongoing investigation.

Their key point: From the moment officers encountered Clark to the time they shot him, around 30 seconds expired. During that small window of time, they would have had no idea if Clark was under the influence or not, the experts said.

As such, the investigation into whether the officers used reasonable force likely is going to come down to what the officers knew that night and how they behaved in those tense moments when they chased Clark through the backyard and opened fire, believing he had a gun.

Two months have passed since the night Clark was fatally shot in Sacramento's Meadowview neighborhood. Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert has said that it could take many more months before her office's investigation into the incident is complete.

However, the drugs won't "play a role in the legal analysis at all," said police training expert Ed Obayashi, who believes the shooting was justified. "The officers aren't going to articulate that he was on drugs. Nor could they."

"I watched those videos; everything happens very fast," said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris, the author of "Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work." "There's nothing there (for the officers) that would indicate one way or the other that he was stone-cold sober or not. ... They had no prior information about this person."

Local members of Black Lives Matter, the activist group that has been leading protests following the shooting, had similar thoughts.

“In the middle of the night, in the dark, they could not tell he had drugs in his system,” Sonia Lewis, chapter lead for Black Lives Matter Sacramento, said recently at a protest in Sacramento. "It’s irrelevant."

Clark family attorney Benjamin Crump, who is expected to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, didn't return a message left at his Florida office.

Clark, 22, was shot March 18 after running from police in a chase that ended up in his grandmother’s backyard after a neighbor reported a man breaking car windows.

Prior to the shooting, officers believed Clark had broken a sliding glass door at a neighbor's home, police said.

Police subsequently released body cam and helicopter videos of the incident. They showed the officers chasing Clark around a corner of the house, yelling to him, "Show me your hands! Stop! Stop!" and "Gun! Gun! Gun!" before opening fire.

No gun was found at the scene. However, police did find a cellphone near Clark's body.

Clark was shot seven times, according to the county's autopsy. Three of the shots were fired into his back, the county's report said.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, a private pathologist hired by Clark's legal team to perform an independent autopsy, found that Clark had been shot eight times, six times in the back.

Police have released 52 videos and one audio file taken from police radios, body cameras, dash cams and cameras in the county sheriff's helicopter. At no point were drugs or Clark's mental state mentioned in the footage.

In California, autopsy reports are public records, and toxicology tests routinely are performed during a death investigation. Toxicology results, attached to final autopsy reports, are used to help inform a medical examiner's ruling on how the person died.

In Clark's case, cause of death was ruled as "homicide," the term coroners use whenever someone is killed by another person. When coroners use the word, it doesn't imply judgment about the killing being justified.

The toxicology tests showed that on the night he died, Clark had a blood alcohol content at or slightly above .08, the legal threshold that determines whether a person is considered too impaired to drive.

The toxicology report also showed he had codeine, a low-level opioid pain killer, in his system. He had recently used marijuana and had taken the prescription anti-anxiety drug Alprazolam, which is often sold under the brand name Xanax.

His body also contained "relatively low levels" of Etizolam, a drug prescribed in foreign countries to treat anxiety and as a sedative. The drug has not been approved in the United States, said Edwin Smith, a forensic toxicology consultant based in Fair Oaks who used to work for the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office.

The tests showed Clark likely had done cocaine at some point in the two or three days before he died, but the drug had flushed out of his system by the time he was killed, Smith said.

The mix of drugs in his body likely altered Clark's state of mind, independent experts said.

"All of this stuff, especially taken together at that concentration, would impair a lot of people," said Dr. Maurice Preter, a forensic neuropsychiatrist and professor at Columbia University and the Ichan School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai.

Schubert, the district attorney, eventually will decide if it's appropriate to bring criminal charges against the two officers who shot Clark.

Harris, the Pitt professor, said the issue of Clark's drug use will only be relevant to the investigation if it becomes obvious the drugs prompted Clark to behave "in a way that put the officers at greater risk."

"If there's no evidence of that, it doesn't matter what the person had in his or her blood," he said.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow
Related stories from Sacramento Bee