The autopsy reports released on Friday undermine, if not override, the narrative that has grown up around the death of Mario Gonzalez in police custody last April.
Immediately after the City posted bodycam footage of the confrontation between Mr. Gonzalez and three APD officers, charges that Alameda police had wantonly killed the 26‑year‑old Oakland resident dominated the papers and the airwaves. (We can only imagine what was being posted on social media, since we don’t use it ourselves.)
“Alameda police officers murdered my brother Mario,” Mr. Gonzalez’s brother, Gerardo Gonzalez, said in a written statement he read during a press conference outside City Hall. “The officer killed him for no reason,” Mr. Gonzalez’s mother, Edith Arenales, added. “He’s not a criminal at all. They don’t have the right to kill him. We’re human, not cucarachas.”
And they were not alone. According to KTVU, “many” of the “family and civil rights activists from the Anti-Police Terror Project and Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice” who spoke at the press conference joined in “calling police ‘murderers.’” (We’ve also heard the word used by public commenters during City Council meetings.)
At the same time as they accused the local cops of murder, the Gonzalez family, their attorneys, and various activists analogized the events in Alameda to the death of George Floyd, for which a Minneapolis police officer was convicted of second‑ and third‑degree murder and second‑degree manslaughter.
“The police killed my brother in the same manner that they killed George Floyd,” Gerardo Gonzalez said at the press conference, and others echoed his sentiments.
Julia Sherwin, one of the attorneys representing Mr. Gonzalez’s son in a potential suit for damages against the City, told KTVU that she “sees many parallels” to the George Floyd case. And the San Francisco Chronicle quoted George Galvis, executive director of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, as saying that Mr. Gonzalez “died in the park, like George Floyd, with his face in the grass and a knee on his back.”
The Alameda Police Department released on Friday a “coroner investigator’s report” and an “autopsy report” addressing Mr. Gonzalez’s death. Both were prepared by the Alameda County Coroner’s Bureau. The former document is unsigned and undated; the latter was signed by Chief Forensic Pathologist Vivian S. Snyder on September 25. (Why it took so long to make these reports public – and why it was the City rather than the County that released them – remains a mystery. Alameda Police Chief Nishant Joshi told us Friday that “[t]he Alameda County Sheriff’s Office completed the report and APD just got it.”)
We’ve read both reports and discussed them with persons outside City government who are more familiar with the criminal‑justice system than we are. Having done so, we find it difficult, to say the least, to square either document with the narrative that arose right after Mr. Gonzalez’s death.
The coroner investigator’s report makes findings about both the “cause” and the “manner” of death. What’s the difference? According to the California Court of Appeals, “The cause of death is the disease or injury that caused the person to die. The manner of death is how it occurred.” And the “manner of death” can be “one of only five options: natural, accident, suicide, homicide, or undetermined.”
Here, the investigator was able easily to rule out two of the possible options, since there was no evidence that Mr. Gonzalez died of natural causes or committed suicide. Unless the investigator wanted to punt by labeling the manner of death “undetermined,” that forced him to choose between “accident” and “homicide.”
The report did not explain why the investigator picked the latter. In the press release accompanying the disclosure of the reports, Police Chief Joshi suggested that “homicide” was selected “[b]ecause there was a physical altercation.” From a layperson’s perspective, this explanation makes sense: it isn’t as if an intoxicated Mr. Gonzalez tripped and fell dead in the park with no else around. That would sound more like an “accident.”
The description of the manner of death as “homicide,” however, offers very little guidance in determining whether a crime has been committed. As the California jury instructions given in criminal cases state, “Homicide is the killing of one human being by another. . . . A homicide can be lawful or unlawful. If a person kills with a legally valid excuse or justification, the killing is lawful and he or she has not committed a crime. If there is no legally valid excuse or justification, the killing is unlawful and, depending on the circumstances, the person is guilty of either murder or manslaughter.”
For these reasons, if you see any demand that the Alameda cops be “prosecuted for homicide,” you can dismiss the speakers as engaging in . . . loose talk – even if he and she are members of the State Bar of California.
As to “cause,” the autopsy report is quite specific: “[T]he cause of death is the toxic effects of methamphetamine, with the physiologic stress of altercation and restraint, morbid obesity, and alcoholism contributing to the process of dying.” (The investigator’s report is similar. It identifies the “cause of death” as “[t]oxic effects of methamphetamine,” and lists “Physiologic stress of altercation and restraint; Morbid obesity; Alcoholism” as “Other Significant Conditions.”)
The autopsy report contains substantial evidence in support of its medical findings.
The pathologist attached a forensic laboratory report stating that a gas chromatography – mass spectrometry screening of Mr. Gonzalez’s blood showed 907 ng/ml of methamphetamine. According to one clinical reference guide, more than 500 ng/ml constitutes a “toxic blood level” for the drug.
Similarly, Mr. Gonzalez, who was 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 284 pounds, had a Body Mass Index of 47.25. Published tables confirm that such a person is considered “morbidly obese.”
In addition, the autopsy examination of Mr. Gonzalez’s heart noted cardiomegaly (an “abnormal enlargement of the heart”) with “mild four-chamber dilation.” (Medical researchers have found a link between “morbid obesity” and heart failure.)
Finally, Mr. Gonzalez had a “history of alcoholism”; “marked hepatomegaly” (an “abnormal enlargement of the liver”) with “severe seatosis” (“fatty degeneration of the liver”); and ethanol in his blood.
The report suggests that these medical conditions, even without any involvement by the police, could have caused Mr. Gonzalez’s death: “The methamphetamine detected in his blood combined with his enlarged and dilated heart could have together resulted in a fatal cardiac arrhythmia.”
In any event, of the primary and three secondary factors cited in the autopsy report, only one relates to the police: “physiologic stress of altercation and restraint.”
“Physiologic stress,” of course, may result from any engagement between a citizen and the cops, even if there is no physical contact. But the autopsy report details how the two APD officers who initially responded to the call “struggle[d]” to handcuff Mr. Gonzalez while he was standing, and then how one of them positioned (and “repositioned”) himself over Mr. Gonzalez’s upper and lower back and the other grabbed Mr. Gonzalez’s arms and legs after he was on the ground. It also describes how a third officer who arrived on the scene “took control of” Mr. Gonzalez’s legs.
In sum, the report states that, during his “interaction” with the police, Mr. Gonzalez “was face down on the ground (prone) with his hands handcuffed behind his back, and at times the officers were applying pressure to his torso and legs with at least some of the weight of their bodies.”
These facts, however, did not lead the pathologist to alter or modify her conclusion that the “toxic effects of methamphetamine” was the cause of death, or that the meth use and enlarged heart themselves may have been responsible for it. Instead, the report states: “The stress of the altercation and restraint combined with prone positioning in the setting of morbid obesity and recent use of methamphetamine placed further strain on Mr. Gonzalez Arenales’ heart.”
The report does not identify any significant physical harm resulting from the restraint. “The autopsy did not demonstrate any lethal injuries,” it states. “Broken ribs (rib fractures) and liver tear (laceration) were documented at autopsy – features that are consistent with the consequences of aggressive resuscitative efforts.” Moreover, the autopsy examination revealed only “superficial blunt trauma,” consisting of “cutaneous abrasions and contusions,” on Mr. Gonzalez’s torso and extremities.
The absence of trauma is one distinction between this case and George Floyd’s. But it is the conclusion that the “toxic effects of methamphetamine” was the cause of Mr. Gonzalez’s death that materially distinguishes him from Mr. Floyd.
In the Floyd case, the medical examiner ruled that the cause of death was “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.” He noted that drugs – fentanyl and methamphetamine – had been found in Mr. Floyd’s blood, but he cited them only under “other significant conditions.” Not including these findings as part of the cause of death means the M.E. concluded that “those were there before but didn’t start the lethal sequence of events,” a board-certified pathologist consulted by the New York Times explained. Here, the drug use played a more prominent – indeed, decisive – role in causing death.
Predictably, the opposing sides in the Gonzalez case already are interpreting the coroner’s reports in a way that favors their case. Despite the autopsy findings, Ms. Sherwin is continuing to insist, according to NPR, that “it was the officers’ prone weight restraint, not meth, that killed” Mr. Gonzalez. She also attacked the County forensic pathologist’s expertise: “It’s not uncommon for a forensic pathologist to not have a very strong handle on the toxicology or the epidemiology of mass intoxication.”
Her partner, Michael Haddad, likewise rejected the coroner’s conclusion that meth use was the cause of Mr. Gonzalez’s death. “I’m concerned that the sheriff-coroner is trying to protect the Alameda police,” he told the Chronicle.
By contrast, Alison Berry Wilkinson, the attorney for the officers, stated during an interview with KTVU that the autopsy “clearly showed” that Mr. Gonzalez died from drug toxicity. “It was the toxic level of drugs not the actions of the officers,” she was quoted as saying. “There’s nothing in the report that any of the techniques used by the officers were unreasonable or excessive. They did a tremendous job under difficult circumstances.”
Ultimately, the autopsy report and the coroner investigator’s report will form only part of the record District Attorney Nancy O’Malley will consider in deciding whether to charge the three Alameda cops with a crime. And those reports, as well as testimony from their authors, will constitute only part of the evidence presented to a civil jury (if Mr. Haddad and Ms. Sherwin follow through with their stated intent to file a suit for damages) and/or a criminal jury (if Ms. O’Malley does bring charges).
In the meantime, we hold out little hope that the coroner’s reports will prompt any modification of the narrative that the Alameda cops killed Mario Gonzalez like the Minneapolis cops killed George Floyd. But at least now a conscientious observer will have a dispassionate source of information against which to evaluate any outlandish claims.