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An independent autopsy performed by a world-renowned forensic pathologist not only confirmed that Patrick Lyoya died from being shot in the back of his head by a police officer but also that the officer “pressed” his gun into the unarmed Black man’s head before firing the “contact shot” in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Dr. Werner Spitz said Tuesday during a press conference in Detroit that Lyoya, a 26-year-old Congolese refugee, was also “conscious and aware that a gun was being held to the back of his head” at the moment before he died on that fateful morning of April 4.
Those findings based on scientific evidence only bolster claims that lethal force was used in a situation in which it was not merited because the officer clearly had control over Lyoya, civil rights attorneys said during the press conference.
The developments in the latest high profile police killing of an unarmed Black person came as Ben Crump, who represents Lyoya’s family, suggested Lyoya — whose shooting stemmed from a traffic stop — was also the victim of “DWB,” or driving while Black.
Attorney Ven Johnson also suggested during the press conference that the sudden deactivation of the officer’s body camera may have been deliberate.
The autopsy findings came days before Lyoya’s funeral and nearly one week after graphic video footage from the traffic stop and shooting was made public by the City of Grand Rapids.
Spitz, who has worked on landmark shooting cases like the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., conducted the autopsy on Saturday at a funeral home in Grand Rapids and shared his preliminary findings on Tuesday. The autopsy was the second one performed on Lyoya after the Kent County medical examiner conducted one following the shooting.
Using a human skull and a chart to demonstrate where and how Lyoya was shot, Spitz said the single bullet used went into Lyoya’s skull but never exited his head. Instead, the bullet was lodged near the upper right temple and stopped because Lyoya had his face pushed into the ground at the time of the shooting.
the bullet went thru the bone and lodged under the skin for the simple reason that the skin is elastic, lost its velocity of the bullet because the bullet stretched the skin in the upper right temple area and at that moment the bullet stopped and it was located.
“There’s no question what killed this young man,” Spitz said.
Crump said it was important to get these official findings on the record because previously the police chief in Grand Rapids would not say where Lyoya was shot.
Spitz said it was the only injury to Lyoya’s body.
Lyoya knew he had a gun to his head before he was shot, Spitz added.
“He was fully aware at one point … that there is a gun being held to his head,” Spitz said, in part because “the gun is cold” and metal.
“The gun is pushed against the skin which gives a certain feeling to the person that is being detained, that there’s a gun involved and,” Spitz said before adding, “Who knows what’s going to follow?”
Spitz said he was sure the gun was pressed into Lyoya’s head before the fatal shot was fired.
“I think it was,” Spitz said, “because the bone in the back of the head was not broken, it was fragmented.”
Bone fragmentation happens “when the gun is held in contact with the skin and pushed against the skin,” Spitz said.
Driving while Black
Before Spitz delivered his findings, Crump said there was growing suspicion that the officer racially profiled Lyoya before pulling him over. The officer, whose name had not been made public more than two weeks after the shooting, was shown via footage from his own dashboard camera making a U-turn after Lyoya drove past him without committing a moving violation.
Crump said he “wants to investigate whether this is a classic DWB case — driving while black case” — because Lyoya was told he was pulled over because the car he was driving had license plates registered to a different vehicle. However, in Michigan, license plates are only displayed in the rear of vehicles, making it unclear what prompted the officer to make a U-turn and follow Lyoya.
Crump asked: “How did he know that Patrick’s tag registration wasn’t valid when he’s coming from the opposite direction?”
Bodycam questions linger
Attorney Johnson said he needed answers about how the officer’s body camera managed to be deactivated at the moment before he killed Lyoya only to be reactivated later. He said the body camera requires a button to be held down for three straight seconds before it is deactivated.
‘How can that be depressed right on that one spot for 3 seconds? And we also know that it turns back on,” Johnson said. “I know what that suggests to me.”
Johnson also made a point to tell members of the media that characterizing the encounter between Lyoya and the officer as a fight was incorrect. He said Lyoya was defending himself with “reflexive” moves like trying to get away from the officer.
“There was no true fight between these two people,” Johnson said.
Who is the police officer?
The cop who killed Lyoya has enjoyed the privilege of relative anonymity in the wake of the shooting that’s made national news. Social media reports claimed to have identified him last week as being named Christopher Paul Schurr.
On Tuesday, Johnson said he “confirmed it was him” but deferred to Crump for naming the officer.
“It is our practice to not reveal the name of the officer, to let the police department and governmental entities do that,” Crump said.
Grand Rapids Police Chief Eric Winstrom said he wouldn’t name the officer unless there were criminal charges.
Will there be criminal charges?
Michigan State Police is running the law enforcement investigation and will turn over its findings to Kent County Prosecuting Attorney Christopher R. Becker, who will then decide whether to bring any criminal charges against the officer.
Jeffrey A. Fagan, a Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher professor of law at Columbia Law School, told MLive that manslaughter charges should “happen sooner than later.” He added, “at no point was the officer’s life in danger,” explaining the officer “shot as if the victim was armed and dangerous, which he wasn’t.”
The funeral for Lyoya, who moved to the U.S. from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2014, is scheduled for Friday in Grand Rapids. Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network said it was helping Lyoya’s family pay for the funeral.
This is a developing story that will be updated as additional information becomes available.