Updated: Aug 29
After John Crawford, III, was shot dead in a suburban Ohio Wal-Mart by police who mistook a toy gun he was holding for a real one, the Montgomery County coroner’s office received his body for post-mortem examination. The coroner also received the body of Angela Williams, a 37-year-old white woman who had been shopping at Wal-Mart at the time of the shooting, and who suffered a heart attack while fleeing the scene and died hours later. Autopsies performed on these two victims of accidental homicide included routine toxicological tests we might logically expect to be identical. Yet, according to the reports, “B Service” testing for alcohol and illicit drugs was requested for Crawford, while “A Service” was requested for Williams.
At the Montgomery County coroner’s office, both A and B Services include a simple test for the presence of alcohol and a type of screening, known by its acronym ELISA, for drugs of abuse. (This method is unsophisticated enough to be available in an affordable home drug-testing kit.) However, the B Service package requested for Crawford also included the more sensitive and pricey test for “basic drugs” by GC/MS, a technique known as the gold standard in toxicology. GC/MS is commonly employed to confirm the presence of cannabinoids after a positive ELISA result, and to quantify estimated levels in the blood. Crawford tested positive for THC, which was confirmed by GC/MS to be at levels consistent with recent use of marijuana in a living person. For good measure, the county also confirmed this positive finding with a urine test.
Even though B Service is a more time-consuming set of tests, and in spite of the fact that Crawford and Williams were killed on the same day, Crawford’s report was completed and signed by the deputy coroner more than two weeks before Williams’. Crawford’s report was almost certainly considered during the secret proceedings of the grand jury that declined to indict Crawford’s shooter, Beavercreek Police Officer Sean Williams. When Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine released Crawford’s toxicology report to the public the day after this decision, the Dayton Daily News led its article with the finding that Crawford had marijuana in his system at the time of the shooting. Montgomery County Coroner Kent Harshbarger told the News that Crawford had used marijuana in the past several hours before his death, calling it “acute use, that is recent, (within) hours.”
John Crawford, III
Because I lived only 10 minutes from the Wal-Mart where Crawford was killed last fall, I was tuned into news coverage of the tragedy. The disclosure of his private drug use smelled like an intentional distraction from police misuse of force at best, and an attempt to blame Crawford for his own death at worst. It rankled.
This memory is why, when I began reading about Sandra Bland, I cynically anticipated the release of her post-mortem toxicology report and expected that it would expose Bland’s worse-than-irrelevant sin of pot smoking. Said report was quickly produced and distributed, then well explored by bloggers and reporters, some of whom pointed out yet other victim-blaming precedents besides Crawford.
Still, I think it’s worth going over some of the claims made by Waller County officials about Bland’s toxicology report. The county DA, Elton Mathis, reportedly texted Bland’s family’s attorney: “Looking at the autopsy results and toxicology, it appears she swallowed a large quantity of marijuana or smoked it in the jail.” Mathis typed that the finding “will of course be very relevant in any future criminal or civil litigation.” A county prosecutor, Warren Diepraam, said the toxicological evidence of THC “may be relevant to her state of mind to determine what happened on the street”—in other words, during her arrest. Also: “It may be relevant to her state of mind to determine how or why she committed suicide. … [A]ny ideations or thoughts that’s in a person’s mind at the time of smoking the marijuana could be amplified by the use of marijuana.” Waller County Judge Trey Duhon took to Facebook and Twitter to announce the “very high level of marijuana in her system” and suggest Bland “could have been self-medicating for depression.” Eager to present evidence that Bland committed suicide, county officials embraced the toxicological findings with great relief.
Bland’s toxicology report shows she tested negative for alcohol. ELISA screening detected no amphetamine, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, cocaine, methadone, methamphetamine, opiates, or phencyclidine (PCP), but Bland was not screened for marijuana. Instead, numeric results obtained through GC/MS testing are given. Is this standard procedure, or was the use of marijuana presumed for Bland and the more sensitive and accurate test ordered? Leaving aside questions about the problematic interpretation of results, the test itself seems prejudicial because it only screens for drugs of abuse. The National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC) includes barbiturates on a list of “drugs not routinely included in death investigation toxicology screens,” and PCP is not listed under “drugs included in routine post-mortem toxicology.” But a number of legal prescription and over-the-counter drugs are on this list of drugs routinely included: analgesics, antidepressants, antihistamines, antipsychotics, cardiovascular drugs. Bland was supposed to be taking an anticonvulsant drug trade-named Keppra and had a history of depression and suicidal thoughts, yet she was not tested for antidepressants nor anticonvulsants. She was found hanged with no signs of struggle but her death was not witnessed; should she have been screened for poisons or incapacitating substances like GHB?
Some would call me, and many other writers speculating about Bland’s unjust detention and death, a conspiracy theorist. So be it—I think something is going on with these toxicology reports. The record seems to show that, in cases involving police misconduct, post-mortem toxicology does not produce effective evidence. On the contrary, it tends to obscure the truth by maligning the character of the victim and mitigating police culpability. A cursory reading of some newspaper accounts of police brutality suggest that using toxicology evidence against victims—almost always minority citizens—has a history dating back to at least the early 1980s, when corporations made drug testing widely available and President Reagan advocated employee testing as a weapon in the war on drugs.
In 1981, Ron Settles, a 21-year-old California State football star, was found dead in his jail cell of an apparent suicide by hanging. He had been beaten by police during his arrest the previous night. When a coroner’s inquest found the death was “at the hands of another” rather than by suicide, the district attorney sought more modern, sensitive testing for PCP—and found it at nearby University of Southern California. A professor there introduced a new way to detect trace amounts of the substance in Settles’ remains. The Los Angeles Times described PCP as an “elusive, yet powerful hallucinogenic … known to cause belligerence, suicidal depression, and other uncharacteristic behavior in virtually any amount chemists can detect.” The police officer who booked Settles was quoted as saying the new drug findings “might help answer the why” of the suicide. “It also eases my mind a bit in letting me know there might have been some reason for him killing himself beyond just getting arrested.”
In December 1983, 24-year-old Darryl Angelo Rhones was beaten in Washington, D.C., by nine members of a narcotics task force and died in custody on the way to the police station. The officers claimed to have received an anonymous tip that Rhones was carrying a gun, but a number of witnesses described an unprovoked and brutal beating in front of friends and family members. Police Chief Maurice Turner said the suspect was apparently high on PCP and resisted arrest; corroborating this, a medical examiner said, “Drugs were present in sufficiently high levels to influence his actions,” but declined to say which drugs. Only days later, a 29-year-old bank employee died in the back of a D.C. patrol car, his death ruled suffocation due to intoxication in spite of conflicting reports that he was alive when the car arrived at the station.
In a high-profile 1985 case, an undercover officer shot and killed 17-year-old Edmund Perry, a Harlem resident who had attended a prestigious prep school and was headed for Stanford. The officer claimed Edmund and his brother, 19-year-old Cornell student Jonah Perry, had attempted to mug him. Toxicological evidence included the presence of marijuana in Edmund’s body. The officer was cleared by a grand jury, which simultaneously charged Jonah with assault and attempted robbery (he was later acquitted). In 1989, Gregory Kafi Habib, a Ghanian citizen, was beaten to death by four officers at a traffic stop. When the medical examiner released reports showing THC in Habib’s blood and urine after his death, the state prosecutor accused him of selectively releasing information in the autopsy report in order to influence the grand jury—which did not indict the officers.
It might not surprise you, at this point, to learn both that Rodney King had marijuana in his system at the time he was beaten by Los Angeles cops in 1991, and that officers claimed he appeared to be under the influence of PCP.
Before the advent of toxicology testing, police used a number of other tactics to avoid prosecution for violent behavior and murder: illegally searching a suspect or home, planting evidence, claiming to see suspects drop drugs on the ground. Over the course of the 1980s, and possibly earlier, the results of toxicology testing on victims of police brutality have been important components in the prosecution and media coverage of police killings. The findings were almost always a boon for the police. However, from time to time, the absence of drugs in test results served in court to contradict police testimony that a suspect appeared or acted high or erratic during an arrest.
Testing Bland for PCP but not for antidepressants is an almost comical artifact of this history. The findings of Sandra Bland’s toxicology report should not be allowed to support officials’ contentions that she committed suicide. Their speculation is uninformed and designed to discredit critics. Post-mortem toxicology procedures for victims of police violence should get closer scrutiny, if only for the indignity and invasion of privacy they inflict on the dead. It’s like being frisked for a joint one last time before finally resting in peace.