Maryland State Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby has filed charges against six officers in the death of Baltimore man Freddie Gray. During a live press conference, she expressed a commitment to justice and condemned those in law enforcement who have “leaked information prior to the resolution of the case,” saying that they have damaged her office’s ability to carry out a fair and impartial process.
As authorities dig deeper into the events surrounding Freddie Gray’s arrest and mysterious death, there seem to be more questions than answers, particularly about how exactly the 25-year-old Baltimorean sustained his fatal injuries. Gray’s spine was nearly severed and his voice box was crushed.
Mosby may have been alluding to a Baltimore Police Department document obtained by the Washington Post that alleges Gray caused his own injuries by banging on the police van while he was being transported. Conservative news sites wasted little time disseminating the findings in stories that speculated that Gray damaged his spine long before the incident and won a court settlement for those injuries, although the court document in question was actually related to a lead poisoning case.
There’s a lot of information that critics say contradicts the account reported in the Post. There’s a video showing a numbness in Gray’s legs as officers drag him into a paddy wagon. Donte Allan, the man in the van with Freddie Gray whose account forms the basis of the police document obtained by the Washington Post, later denied telling police anything. And Baltimore’s WBAL-TV investigative reporter Jayne Miller says that statements from her sources contradict what the Washington Post reported.
“The force of this injury is akin to a car accident. That is much more force you would get than trying to bang your head against the wall of a van,” Miller during an appearance on MSNBC’s Morning Joe on Thursday, pointing out that Gray was also unresponsive and therefore unable to bang his head against the wall of the van in the first place.
What could have caused Freddie Gray’s death? Getting to the bottom of that question requires deeper knowledge about various types of spinal cord injuries and how people can sustain each one.
The Victorian Spinal Cord Injury Program, a coalition of Australian-based spinal cord awareness organizations, outlines five types of spinal cord injuries. Flexion and rotation injuries typically occur in motor vehicle accident during the forcible forward movement of the head — described as whiplash injury. Compression injuries happen during sporting events when force transmits through the head to the base of the spine and lower limbs, particularly during diving accidents. Penetration injuries occur when a knife, bullet, or any other sharp object punctures the spinal cord.
Hyperextension injuries, the fifth category of spinal trauma, takes place when the neck is forcibly extended in a backwards direction, stretching the spinal cord. Experts say that even with minimal damage, the opening of the discs and stretching of the ligaments, the spine could still be damaged. These injuries usually occur in cases of assault or domestic violence.
Internal medicine professional Dave Belk speculates that Gray likely suffered a hyperextension injury, telling ThinkProgress that the damage done to Gray’s spine would require an untold amount of force.
“Freddie Gray didn’t stand up in the back of that van and twist his back,” Belk said. “What it would take to break a person’s spine is heavy trauma. The spine is so guarded, so an injury like his would take a lot of force like jumping from a second floor building or getting hit by a motor vehicle. It doesn’t just happen out of nowhere.”
Other medical professionals agree. Dr. David Samadi, an expert in robotic prostrate surgery and a medical correspondent for several news outlets, wrote an op-ed for the New York Daily News that also challenged the Baltimore Police Department’s version of events, saying that even if Freddie Gray tried to injure himself in the police van, he couldn’t have done so in a way that would cause serious spinal cord injuries.
“There must be a sudden, traumatic blow to the spine that fractures, dislocates, crushes or compresses one or more of the vertebrae, or when a gun shot or knife penetrates the spinal cord,” Samadi wrote.
“You have to apply a significant amount of force in order to break somebody’s neck,” Dr. Ali Bydon, an associate professor of neurosurgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, agreed in an interview with the Baltimore Sun.
Other information about police officers’ missteps, including the failure to strap Gray in a seatbelt and give him an inhaler and medical care when requested, adds to the cloud of uncertainty around the information that the Baltimore Police Department released.
This doubt around official accounts of the events surrounding the death of a black male in police custody is not unique to the Freddie Gray case. In other police-related shooting deaths that have made national headlines, authorities have also claimed that the victim caused deadly self-harm.
One example involved Victor White III of New Orleans, who the Louisiana State Police said shot himself in the back while inside of a police car with his hands cuffed behind his back. However, the final coroner report showed that White was shot in the front, raising suspicion around the authorities’ version of events on that March evening. In the wake of Walter Scott’s death, authorities claimed Scott grabbed the officer’s taser and attempted to use it. A video of the officer, Michael Slager, shooting Scott in the back discredited that version of events.