Could teen have run with severed spine after being shot by St. Louis police?

Story highlights

  • Mansur Ball-Bey was shot and kept running, police say; the medical examiner says his spine was severed
  • Examiner conducted two investigations, but says there's still not a clear explanation
  • Ball-Bey family lawyer is skeptical, claiming that "we are dealing with a revisionist theory"

(CNN)The St. Louis police shooting death of 18-year-old Mansur Ball-Bey sparked days of protests earlier this month, and now one searing question has risen to the forefront: How could Ball-Bey have run from police after his spinal cord was severed?

Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Graham determined last week that Ball-Bey's spinal cord was severed after police shot him in the back, though that information was not released to the media at the time. Then, this week, Graham decided to reexamine part of the black teenager's body after seeing the police evidence in the case.
The medical examiner told CNN that he decided on his own to take a second look because of questions he had about the evidence and police statements that Ball-Bey ran after being shot in the back, relative to the condition of the body during his examination. The bullet also pierced Ball-Bey's heart, which was fatal, Graham said.
    "It's a matter of the physical evidence as it's been preliminarily portrayed," Graham told CNN. "It made me question how could a body be in this place if this happened?"
    After his second examination, Graham said his findings can't answer whether Ball-Bey could have run immediately after being shot in the back.
    "At the time his body was found, I determined the spinal cord was severed," he said. "That is not necessarily the way it was immediately after he was shot.
    "Potentially, the natural progression of the damage to the spinal cord could have been a delayed separation instead of instantaneous."
    But the lawyer for Ball-Bey's family believes this all amounts to a "suspicious" reversal of what he says Graham told him last week:
    "When I initially spoke to Dr. Graham, he indicated that Mansur -- after being shot -- would have gone down immediately or that his momentum may have carried him no more than five feet before he would collapse," said attorney Jermaine Wooten. "But when that narrative didn't line up with the police officer's narrative I feel we are dealing with a revisionist theory."

    Family hires pathologist to review records

    Police have said officers were serving a search warrant looking for drugs and guns in a St. Louis home when they noticed Ball-Bey and another person run out of the home's back door. They claimed Ball-Bey turned and pointed a handgun at them -- an account disputed by his family's attorney -- after which officers shot at him.
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    Investigators said Ball-Bey ran through the home and dropped the gun in the back yard after being shot. But he didn't stop moving, running through a gangway into the front yard before collapsing.
    Wooten questions how Ball-Bey could have gotten all the way to the front yard if his spine had been severed.
    But Graham, the medical examiner, told CNN that his findings can't answer that question definitively. He said that, in in this case, all the witness accounts and physical evidence will be paramount.
    While Graham says another look at a small portion of the body is not all that rare, the family attorney says the reexamination of the body is another reason the family and community do not trust the police account.
    The family contends that Mansur Bell-Bey was an innocent bystander. They claim he was not inside the home when police ran in to serve a warrant but was watching as the raid happened.
    Wooten told CNN he has hired pathologist Cyril Wecht to examine autopsy records and photographs.
    Wecht is no stranger to high-profile cases, and he criticized the third autopsy (performed by federal authorities) on Michael Brown. The death of the 18-year-old unarmed black teen at the hands of a white police officer -- who a grand jury found was justified in the shooting -- in Ferguson, Missouri, spurred large-scale protests and a national debate over race and policing.
    CNN's attempts to obtain comment from police were not successful Thursday.
    Police spokeswoman Schron Jackson sent a statement to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which first reported the development, saying, "There are multiple layers of this investigation and we support each agency involved as we work to determine the facts of what occurred on Wednesday, Aug. 19."
    Chief Sam Dotson acknowledged last week that an autopsy revealed the teenager died after being shot in the back.
    Dotson said then, "Just because he was shot in the back, doesn't mean he was running away" when he was shot.
    The chief quickly added, "It could be. And I'm not saying that it doesn't mean that. I just don't know yet."