Wednesday, October 03, 2007

D.C. Teen Shot by Officer in the Back of His Head

Autopsy Also Shows Unexplained Injuries

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 3, 2007; B01

The 14-year-old killed last month in a confrontation with D.C. police died of a gunshot wound to the back of his head, according to a newly obtained autopsy report.

The report also notes numerous unexplained cuts and bruises from blunt force trauma on the body of DeOnté Rawlings, especially the left side of his face, shoulder and back. The report offers no conclusions about police conduct or what caused the injuries.

"The body has some blunt force injuries including abrasions, contusions and lacerations and a single perforating gunshot wound," wrote A. Wayne Williams, a pathologist with the D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Describing the gunshot wound, Williams wrote: "the overall pathway . . . is back to front, left to right and slightly upward."

The report, obtained yesterday by The Washington Post, marks the first time authorities have said DeOnté was shot in the back of the head in the Sept. 17 confrontation in Southeast Washington. But it does not settle questions surrounding the case. Police have said DeOnté was shot in a running gun battle after he opened fire on two off-duty officers. The youth's family has challenged that account, pointing out that no gun was found at the scene.

Carrie Brooks, a spokeswoman for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), said last night that the mayor has not seen the autopsy report and wants to be briefed before commenting.

"Obviously, a 14-year-old being shot in the back of the head -- or anywhere, for that matter -- gives him grave concern," Brooks said.

The U.S. attorney's office, FBI and D.C. police are investigating events, and a grand jury is likely to take on the case. Authorities have said they have had trouble finding witnesses who might be able to confirm or rebut the police account.

According to police, Officer James Haskel asked fellow officer and friend Anthony Clay to help him find a minibike that Haskel believed had been stolen from his home in Southeast. Off duty and out of uniform, the officers went looking for the minibike in Haskel's sport-utility vehicle and found DeOnté riding it on nearby Atlantic Street SE, police have said. DeOnté shot at the officer, police said, and Haskel got out of the SUV, pursued the youth on foot and shot him.

The autopsy report, dated Sept. 27, describes DeOnté as 5-foot-2 and 102 pounds. It includes a toxicology analysis that found no traces of drugs or alcohol in his blood.

The report notes that the youth's hands and fingers had no obvious gunshot residue, powder or soot. Police have said they did not perform gunshot residue tests because they are unreliable.

Greg Lattimer, an attorney for the Rawlings family, said the medical examiner's findings -- especially those describing injuries on the side and back of his body -- are "extremely troubling" and cast doubt on the police version of events.

"A kid doesn't get shot in the back of the head and then give himself a bunch of traumatic injuries," Lattimer said. "He didn't fall off a building."

Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office, said it would be inappropriate to comment while authorities are still gathering information and sifting through evidence. But some law enforcement authorities, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case, said it is possible that DeOnté sustained injuries in a fall immediately after he was shot.

Kristopher Baumann, head of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge that represents the officers, declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. Both officers have been placed on administrative leave, as is customary in police shooting cases.

Jonathan Arden, former chief medical examiner for the District, said in an interview that blunt force injuries are caused by the body striking something or being hit. He said the key to reconstructing events is looking for patterns that indicate whether the victim was hit or fell to the ground.

"You can have it because you are hit, or you can have impact with a surface," Arden said. "Depending on where you have the injury, and the possible pattern, you can distinguish between being hit and falling down."

For example, a series of impact injuries along bones that tend to stick out -- elbows, knees, cheekbones -- might indicate that the victim fell. "Could one fall cause all those injuries?" Arden asked. "Maybe. I'd want to see the injuries."

The autopsy was performed Sept. 18, the day after DeOnté's death. Besides the medical examiner, four police officers were present for the examination. They were identified by police as two 5th District detectives and two D.C. officers assigned to the crime lab.

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