Michael Brown: An Illustrated Analysis of the Ballistics Data

Dec 01, 2014

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Unless you live in a cave, you are aware that the grand jury reached a decision in the shooting of Michael Brown. The jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson has resulted in high emotions and heated debate over the state of racial affairs and justice in the US. Clearly this is a tragic event, regardless of your own views on the underlying racial and justice issues. Yet, as scientists, it is our role to stay clear of the emotional fray and attempt to seek and illustrate the truth when possible. In watching the coverage of the issues, I have seen and heard quite a bit about emotional responses to the grand jury findings. What I have not seen is media coverage of the data and the evidence. As an expert who routinely analyzes these incidents, creates exhibits and provides testimony for trial, I was interested in what could be gleaned from the data that has been shared with the public.

Last week, some of the evidence that was being considered by the grand jury became publicly available in the form of the medical examiner’s autopsy report. This report details the location of the 8 gunshot wounds found on Michael Browns body. In my criminal and civil litigation work, this data is used to visualize the location of the wounds, their trajectory and with methods used in reconstruction, the relative body posture of the shooter and decedent can be determined and illustrated.

I used the autopsy report to help visualize the evidence, as the hearsay was difficult to make any sense of. I have posted these resulting visualizations here, without specific commentary, to share for those who may also be interested in the data. This work is based on the autopsy report and findings from the criminalists that have been shared with the public and does not consider all the physical evidence, as I, like the rest of us, do not have access to it at this time. The following images illustrate the trajectory of the gunshot wounds and the potential relative body postures that would result in the wounds. I have not illustrated the three wounds to Michael Brown’s right arm, as wounds in the extremities typically cannot be used to demonstrate posture given the variability of the arm’s positions. Although there is testimony to suggest some of these wounds to the right arm may have occurred while Brown and Officer Wilson were in close proximity near the patrol car, the autopsy data alone does not differentiate enough to be conclusive for these wounds. In addition, there is conflicting testimony regarding the position of Michael Brown’s hands at the time the shots were fired. This data could potentially be reviewed to determine if it supports either position, but I have chosen not to undertake this task as it likely is not conclusive and is better left for those wishing to illustrate a given version of events.

It is important to note that these are snapshots in time – typically these positions follow one to another in rapid succession as the shooter fires. These events are dynamic in nature and neither the shooter nor the decedent are afforded the luxury of a lengthy view of any one position.

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Additional data that would be used in a full investigation, include locations of the expended cartridge casings, location of the blood found inside the patrol car and results of criminalist’s analysis detailing items such as body fluids and gunshot residue testing. Witness testimony also plays a role in a typical investigation, although a secondary one. Currently, I am not aware of the totality of these accounts and this lack of a complete picture may be reflected in the images we can create at this time.

I want to emphasize that it is not my desire or goal to incite passions, - and in fact wish to steer clear of it and engage in a rational, scientific discussion of the evidence. I am interested in what others make of this data and if anyone else has additional insights or a different perspective on what the evidence suggests.



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Craig Fries

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Craig Fries is the Founder and President of Precision Simulations, Inc., the foremost forensic analysis and animation firm in the US. In this role he has created or directed over 1,000 3D forensic animations for use in criminal and civil litigation and has maintained a 100% record of non-exclusion at trial. As a pioneer in the field of forensic laser scanning, Craig created the first 3D animation based upon laser scan data ever admitted at trial in the US, and has been at the forefront of the use of the technology in homicide and accident investigation since.


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