Private pathologist in Stephon Clark case describes what he found in autopsy
Stephon Clark was shot six times in the back and eight times total by Sacramento police officers, according to a private autopsy released Friday by his family's legal team, a finding that increased tensions in a city already on edge about the shooting of the unarmed black man.
The review concluded that Clark was not facing officers when they opened fire and hit him first in the side. The force of that round spun him around with his back to officers, and six rounds penetrated his back moving in a forward trajectory, the Clark family legal team said.
The last shot struck his left thigh area as Clark was falling or had fallen, the autopsy found.
Clark family attorney Benjamin Crump said the autopsy "affirms that Stephon was not a threat to police and was slain in another senseless police killing under increasingly questionable circumstances."
The review was conducted by prominent pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, the former chief medical examiner in San Joaquin County best known for his research on football-related concussions. His findings were released at a Friday morning press conference held by Crump and other attorneys representing Clark's family.
The legal team showed some confusion Friday. The team first said Clark was not struck in the front, but later revised its press release to say one shot did enter through the front and did not specify which one.
The team also released two different autopsy drawings, one showing the first round striking Clark on the left side, another showing the round entering on the right. The legal team said the drawing with the entry point on the right side was accurate.
Clark, 22, was killed March 18 after Sacramento police received reports of a car burglar in the Meadowview area. Two officers followed Clark into the backyard of his grandparents' home, where they ordered him to show his hands. One officer is heard saying "gun" before the officers fired 20 shots at Clark, according to body camera video released by police three days after the shooting.
Clark was later found to be carrying only a cellphone.
"The proposition that he was facing the officers is inconsistent with the prevailing forensic evidence," the pathologist said.
“He was facing the house, with his left to the officers," Omalu said. "He wasn’t facing the officers. His left back was facing the officers.”
Omalu said it took 3 to 10 minutes for Clark to die: "It was not an instant death." Activists and family members have criticized the two officers for waiting to render medical aid.
In a statement, the Sacramento Police Department said it has not yet received the official Sacramento County coroner's report. That review is separate from a joint investigation being conducted by the Sacramento County DA's Office and the state Department of Justice.
"Further comment by the Sacramento Police Department prior to the release of the Coroner’s report along with the official review by the Sacramento County District Attorney and the California Department of Justice would be inappropriate at this time," Sacramento police said. "We acknowledge the importance of this case to all in our community and we are committed to a thorough and comprehensive investigation."
Mayor Darrell Steinberg responded to the autopsy Friday by asking "from the bottom of my heart" that protests be nonviolent and vowing that the city will make changes in police procedures.
"From the moment we saw the video we knew the details of this horrific shooting were graphic and disturbing," he said in an afternoon statement. "We have an obligation to everyone involved, including the family of Stephon Clark, to wait for the full findings and results from the official autopsy and investigation.
"As the mayor of our city, I assure the community and the public that we will aggressively seek answers to all of the questions the community is rightfully asking. As important, we will aggressively seek appropriate change to the protocols and training that led to this unacceptable outcome.
Since the release of body camera tapes and aerial video from a sheriff's helicopter, Black Lives Matter and other activist groups have staged protests against the police and demanded that Sacramento District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert file criminal charges against the officers.
The protests have shut down rush hour traffic several times, blocked thousands of fans from attending two Sacramento Kings games, disrupted a City Council meeting and closed Interstate 5.
The last demonstration came Thursday night, when angry marchers shut down traffic on I and J streets and faced off in a loud confrontation with half a dozen Sacramento bicycle officers.
Despite some heated moments, the protests have mostly remained peaceful, with only two arrests to date.
Tanya Faison of Black Lives Matter, who was at the press conference, said she is disgusted by what she learned. “I can’t predict how the community is going to react,” she said, "but I don’t think it is going to be without a reaction.”
Later in the day, Black Lives Matter held a protest for 8 p.m. Friday at City Hall, dubbed "Shot 7 Times in His Back! In the Streets!"
Omalu said the initial round entered Clark's side before six rounds struck him in the back. But the pathologist suggested one could "reasonably conclude" that the initial bullet was a seventh one in his back. That has led some, including Black Lives Matter, to say he was struck seven times in the back.
The high-profile nature of the case, which has sparked national outrage, prompted state Attorney General Xavier Becerra to announce his office will oversee the investigation. Federal authorities say they also will monitor progress by state and local officials.
The family's legal team, which is expected to file a federal civil rights lawsuit, ordered the independent autopsy for Clark, who was buried Thursday.
The Sacramento County Coroner's Office conducted its official autopsy earlier this month, but those results are not expected to become public until the Sacramento District Attorney's Office completes its investigation of the shooting.
Coroner Kim Gin declined to discuss her autopsy results. In a statement Friday, she wrote, “The report is not completed yet because we are waiting for the toxicology results. It will be sent to the DA at that time. I don't know how long that will be. I cannot comment on our results other than the information I've already released on the cause and manner which is multiple gunshot wounds and the manner being a homicide.”
Coroners refer to any death of a human caused by another person as a "homicide." They use the term without judgment about motive or legality.
Jim Bueermann, a former police officer and president of the Police Foundation, a national nonprofit that studies police techniques, said it is hard to know just based on bullet-entry points what happened at a shooting scene.
Bueermann, who reviewed the Clark shooting video, said the first of multiple bullets can cause a body to spin.
"If you time how long it takes for each officer to shoot 10 rounds, it is an amazingly short period," he said. "In a shooting, it is not unusual for the person to be shot and to spin and move around. Could he have spun as a result of the first few rounds?"
Bueerman said he can't offer any analysis of the Clark shooting based on his view of the video. That will require a forensics expert to piece all elements of the shooting moment together, and that is a complicated process.
Bueerman said the video does show that the officers not only believed he had a gun but thought they may have been fired upon.
"You can hear them asking each other if they got hit. They are wrong, obviously, but that is what they believed."
The shooting has spawned intense criticism of the officers for firing on Clark and for the number of rounds they shot at him, but law enforcement officers have noted that such incidents typically require split-second decisions in adrenaline-fueled situations.
"All I can say is, things happen very rapidly," said former Placer sheriff's Deputy Chuck Bardo, who was in the October 2014 gunfight with convicted cop killer Luis Bracamontes. "I fired 13 rounds from my gun in a matter of seconds."
"Things happen so rapidly out there, you're forced to make a decision that’s permanent in a matter of seconds, and you've got to be right. The scary thing for law enforcement is, we're reacting to somebody else's actions, which means we're already behind the 8 ball."
Delays in releasing autopsy results by the Sacramento County coroner's office have sparked criticism and a legal challenge from Sacramento defense attorney Stewart Katz, who said the coroner's policy and the DA's pace of investigating shootings are inadequate.
The last officer-involved shooting investigation completed by the DA's office for public review was a Sept. 13, 2017 report on the November 2016 shooting death of Logan Augustine by a sheriff's deputy at a Carmichael convenience market.
Since that shooting, at least six other officer-involved shootings - including the Clark shooting - have occurred in Sacramento County, according to a Bee analysis. Five were in 2017.
The DA's written policy calls for the office to issue findings within 90 days of the "receipt of all necessary reports and materials, unless there is cause for delay."
Earlier Friday, the Sacramento NAACP chapter presented leadership awards to several local women officers during its annual prayer breakfast, attended by Sacramento Police Department Chief Daniel Hahn, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra. The honorees, all African American, were retired police officers Felicia Allen and Flossie Crump, and sheriff's deputy Annica Hagadorn.
Betty Williams, NAACP local chapter president, said the organization was among those who pushed successfully this week to get Becerra to agree to investigate the Clark shooting. Williams said her group decided to go ahead and honor law enforcement despite the current unrest.