Why journalists should be skeptical about autopsy reports
A.C. Thompson is not a doctor. But neither are many of the people performing autopsies in the United States, says the ProPublica reporter, who has developed a special interest in those procedures.
"Reporters would do well to approach autopsies with some skepticism," he said in a phone call. Among the problems with autopsies he's outlined through his reporting: Many are performed by people with no medical training. In many jurisdictions, "When you're cutting up dead bodies, you actually don’t have to be licensed by anyone," he said. (Former New Orleans Parish coroner Frank Minyard told him one of the most important qualities in a coroner is the "love that you have for your fellow man.")
Thompson read about 900 autopsies from New Orleans Parish after Hurricane Katrina and found stuff that was "absolutely mind-boggling" in them: "People would be shot to death by police, they would be beaten to death by police, and you would get an autopsy that would fail to note the very, very obvious injuries to their bodies," he said.
St. Louis County Medical Examiner Mary Case, who conducted one of the three autopsies on Michael Brown's body, "is known as a veteran in the field" and has an accredited medical examiner's office, Thompson said. He wrote a piece for ProPublica, which Poynter republished Tuesday, about what to look for in reports about the autopsies.
Case's office has yet to issue the full report from its autopsy of Brown, and the Department of Justice will reportedly release the results of its autopsy after a civil rights investigation. Such delays aren't unusual in a high-profile case, Thompson said. Brown's family asked for its own autopsy, whose results it released Sunday.
Another potential issue in autopsies: Pro-prosecutorial bias. "Sometimes these can be very hard cases for the local coroner, the local medical examiner to reach a completely independent opinion, and that has been a very big conversation in this field," he said: "The need for independence, the need for these professionals to not be an arm of law enforcement."
One of the cases Thompson reported on in New Orleans (work that won him an I.F. Stone Award and inspired a character based on Thompson on "Treme") was that of a man named Henry Glover, whose autopsy omitted a cause of death, even though his body had been burned to death. He was shot by a police officer. Witnesses said Glover was shot in the back; his skull later vanished.
Autopsies, he said, are often viewed as a "neutral, purely scientific endeavor." But "there can be errors," he said. "There can be confirmation bias. There can be corruption, and it’s a ripe subject for reporters to look into."