Coroner: Family autopsy of Stephon Clark was 'erroneous'
Six weeks after Stephon Clark's death, police released the county coroner’s autopsy report
By Sam Stanton, Anita Chabria, Ryan Lillis and Ed Fletcher
The Sacramento Bee
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Six weeks after Sacramento police shot unarmed Stephon Clark to death in a dark Meadowview backyard, police released the county coroner’s autopsy report Tuesday that differs sharply from the family’s private autopsy findings that said he was shot six times in the back.
Coroner Kimberly Gin said in a letter to police dated Friday that she brought five pathologists into the matter “in light of the erroneous information that was released from the private autopsy.”
Among the new findings: Clark was shot seven times — not eight — and three of the shots — not six were fired into his back.
The findings are starkly different from those presented March 30 by Dr. Bennet Omalu, a noted pathologist hired by the Clark family legal team, who defended his work Tuesday.
A toxicology report also released by police found traces of cocaine, cannabis and codeine in Clark’s system. Codeine and hydrocodone were found in Clark’s urine.
“It is clear from review of the written report and photographic documentation that Stephon Clark was struck by seven bullets, not eight as claimed by Dr. Omalu in his press conference statements and as shown on his autopsy diagram,” wrote Dr. Gregory D. Reiber, a Roseville pathologist who reviewed the county’s autopsy report at Gin’s request.
Reiber, a pathologist in the Placer County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office who previously worked for Sacramento County, did not study Clark’s body, but relied on the county report along with diagrams, photos, body camera videos and other evidence.
Reiber’s report differed from Omalu’s about where the first shot hit Clark, as well as the direction Clark was facing in relation to the officers.
Omalu said at his March press conference that Clark was not facing officers when they opened fire, but that his left side was toward them and the first bullet struck in the side. The force of that bullet spun him around with his back to officers, leading to six rounds hitting him in the back, Omalu said.
Reiber disagreed, saying that the first shot to hit Clark “was most likely” to the left thigh and that it was sustained “either as Clark was walking toward the officers’ position with his left thigh raised, or possibly in the crouching position.”
“At no time does the video show Clark to have the left side of his body facing the officers’ position as shots are fired, nor does the video show him turning around from a left-facing position, still upright, and putting his back squarely toward the officers as there are further shots fired which then dropped him,” Reiber wrote. “The video evidence provides clear refutation of Omalu’s description of Clark’s positioning during the shooting as described in his press conference statements.”
Reiber, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, declared that Clark died from “multiple gunshot wounds.” Reiber’s report was accompanied by Sacramento County’s official autopsy, which was conducted March 20 by pathologist Dr. Keng-Chin Su.
Gin wrote that “in an effort to ensure that we got the facts correct,” Su’s autopsy was then reviewed by Chief Forensic Pathologist Jason Tovar and coroner’s pathologists Brian Nagao and Katherine Raven.
“All three doctors concur with Dr. Su’s findings and have signed the autopsy report with Dr. Su,” Gin wrote, adding that she also sought the report from Reiber and that the five doctors “have over 50 years of experience in the field of forensic pathology.”
Despite that, Omalu rejected the new findings and questioned why Gin requested an outside review.
“I find it extremely unusual that an outside doctor is reviewing an autopsy report and is coming out to state (I) am wrong,” he said. “A doctor cannot say another doctor is wrong. All you can say is, I don’t agree with the opinion of that doctor.”
Omalu said the county’s findings show why it was critical for the Clark family to hire its own expert.
“This is why the family saw the need to hire their own independent expert, because they don’t trust the pathologists or the county because of things like this,” Omalu said. “What they forget is, we have pictures and pictures speak for themselves.”
Sacramento police issued a statement Tuesday saying the shooting “is still being actively investigated by our department and the state of California Department of Justice.”
“We are committed to a thorough, fact-based investigation that shows our commitment to truth, integrity and our community,” the statement said. “The release of the autopsy report is consistent with that endeavor, as it will inform our community on significant facts related to this incident.”
But there were no indications Tuesday that the autopsy release would soothe the fierce passions that have erupted in protests and marches demanding that the police officers be charged since the shooting.
“The fact still remains that he was shot numerous times … and he was not armed,” said Les Simmons, a south Sacramento pastor who has been working with Clark’s family. “From the position that law enforcement had, based off of where law enforcement was standing, they had cover… and I think they could have used some constraint and containment rather than hunting Stephon Clark down and killing him.”
Clark was shot March 18 after running from police and ending up in his grandmother’s backyard. Officers responded to the scene after a neighbor reported a man breaking car windows.
Police say the officers believed he had a gun and opened fire, and subsequently released body cam and helicopter videos to bolster their account. The helicopter video shows the officers taking cover behind a corner of the house before turning the corner and opening fire.
Police subsequently said there was no gun, that Clark was an unarmed 22-year-old man carrying only a cellphone.
Schubert has said she still does not have the Police Department’s final report on the shooting, and that a decision on the case could take many months. Despite that, protesters have continued demonstrations outside her office, including Tuesday, where word of the county’s findings caused alarm.
“In the middle of the night, in the dark, they could not tell he had drugs in his system,” said Sonia Lewis, chapter lead for Black Lives Matter Sacramento who was at the protest at Ninth and G streets. “It’s irrelevant.
“They went behind a blind corner and emptied their clip without identifying themselves. The facts of the case did not change.”
Another community activist said there was little surprise about what the county report found.
“Now comes the argument, ‘Well he was taking drugs.’ Now comes the argument, ‘Well, look at the autopsy the police have,’” said Berry Accius, a community activist in Meadowview. “What we know for sure is Stephon Clark is not coming back.
But Tim Davis, president of the Sacramento Police Officers Association, rejected criticism of the county’s procedures.
“Their results were reviewed by not one, but five pathologists, including an outside and independent pathologist,” Davis said. “The coroner’s report shows that Clark was first shot in the leg while advancing on the officers. It demonstrates that the rushed and unvetted report by Dr. Omalu was inaccurate.
“It also details that Clark was under the influence of several drugs and alcohol at the time of his encounter with the police. Thorough investigations take time and rushing the investigation, as Dr. Omalu did, causes errors to occur.”
Protests by various groups have shut down Interstate 5, blocked downtown Sacramento streets during rush hour and disrupted a City Hall meeting during which Clark’s brother, Stevante, jumped on the council dais and told Mayor Darrell Steinberg to shut up.
Stevante Clark since has been arrested on charges of making threats and sought help for mental issues.
In an odd twist, the body brought into the coroner’s office after the shooting had an identification tag labeling the body as that of Stevante Clark, the autopsy report said, adding that the body was later identified as Stephon Clark’s.
Sacramento police spokesman Sgt. Vance Chandler said that on the night of the shooting, investigators initially could not determine if the body was that of Stephon Clark or Stevante Clark. He said witness interviews led police to believe it was Stevante Clark, but “they also had information it could be Stephon Clark.”
“That’s why it was a pending identification, and that’s why they always verify and confirm identities before releasing the names,” Chandler said.
Chandler said the final identification was made through fingerprints a few days later, adding that it is common in homicide cases for investigators to wait for coroner’s identification rather than searching the body for ID and risk contaminating any evidence.
Clark family attorney Benjamin Crump, who is expected to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city, was not available for comment Tuesday.
Mayor Steinberg said Clark’s death must spur new training and procedures in the Police Department.
“Stephon Clark’s death remains a tragedy regardless of the particular results of an autopsy,” Steinberg said. “We remain focused on working with the community and the police department to reexamine police training, protocols and procedures in an effort to avoid such tragedies in the future.”
©2018 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)