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Preliminary autopsy shows Ball-Bey was shot in the back, circuit attorney launches her own review

St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson speaks to the press on Friday afternoon after Mansur Ball-Bey's preliminary autopsy.
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson speaks to the press on Friday afternoon after Mansur Ball-Bey's preliminary autopsy.

Updated at 9 p.m. Friday with announcement from Jennifer Joyce - St. Louis is on high alert after police released the preliminary autopsy of an 18-year-old man shot and killed by a police officer earlier this week.

At a Friday afternoon press conference, St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson confirmed that Mansur Ball-Bey was killed by a gunshot wound to the back. This came after Dotson and other police officials told reporters that Ball-Bey had pointed a gun an officer before he was shot and killed in St. Louis’ Fountain Park neighborhood.

Dotson emphasized, though, that the fact Ball-Bey was shot in the back doesn’t paint a full picture of what happened. He said investigators still have to analyze fingerprint and DNA evidence from four guns found at the scene – including three that he says were stolen. 

Mansur Ball-Bey was shot and killed near this flat on Wednesday afternoon.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Mansur Ball-Bey was shot and killed near this flat on Wednesday.

He also said the two white officers are being interviewed by the force investigation unit, along with their attorneys.

“We have more information today than we did yesterday,” Dotson said. “But we still are in the early stages of the investigation. And the new facts by themselves do not paint a complete picture. The investigation is not complete until we get all of the facts and analyze all of the physical evidence and interview all of the witnesses involved.”

Dotson said once his agency’s investigation is complete, it will be handed off to St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce – who will do her own independent investigation of the matter. He said the results will also be handed over to U.S. Attorney Richard Callahan for his review. After the press conference, Alderman Antonio French called on Joyce to start her own investigation; she replied with a tweet of her own saying, "We are coordinating that now. We will make an announcement shortly."

She followed through quickly by revealing that her office “will conduct a parallel investigation into the shooting death of Mansur Ball-Bey.” A press release said, “Given the public’s concern, calls from the community and in the interest of public safety,” the circuit attorney “will begin a parallel investigation into whether or not criminal conduct occurred.”

The statement also said she “will recommend that the newly formed Civilian Review Board … request the attorney general conduct a separate review into police policies, practices and training relative to Mr. Ball-Bey’s death.”

The police investigation

“I don’t want to speculate on the outcome,” Dotson said. “The facts are the facts. It’s more important now than ever that the facts be exposed properly. And as they are, one thing that we need to know is exactly what happened in that backyard. We cannot speculate. We must look at the facts. We interview the witnesses. We must let the physical evidence lead us to our conclusion.”

An attorney for Ball-Bey’s family said Wednesday that the autopsy is evidence that the 18 year old was wrongfully killed.

“Based on the forensics from that autopsy and what we know (of the) statements made by police, the two stories are not jiving,” said Jerryl Christmas, one of the attorneys that represent the family. “If Mansur had been turned around facing the officer pointing a weapon at him he should have sustained injuries from the front and not from the back.”

Christmas also disputes the police account that Ball-Bey had a gun, saying that witnesses have told him Ball-Bey was unarmed and not at the house when officers served the search warrant.

“He was in the backyard of a house that was three doors down when they executed the search warrant. And I’m not clear on this from the police account, but I’m assuming they had some officers come from the back of the house and when those young men ran down the gangway (the police officers) just fired upon them,” Christmas said.

When Dotson was asked about Christmas’ contentions, he said: “What I stand by is I have a witness statement that says there was a gun involved and I have officer statements that say there was a gun involved.

“You weren’t there and I wasn’t there,” said Dotson. “And to answer the first part of your question: He ran out the back door, jumped a fence and was headed south. So that part of the statement I have seen physical evidence that makes me believe that to be true.”

Christmas also contends that Ball-Bey didn’t know who the officers were because they were in plain clothes. Dotson said the officers were wearing plain clothes that have “vests that say police on the front of them.” 

Bryce Harvey saw "plainclothes officers with large automatic weapons" after Ball-Bey was shot and killed on Wednesday.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Bryce Harvey saw "plainclothes officers with large automatic weapons" after Ball-Bey was shot and killed on Wednesday.

Bryce Harvey is a barber whose business is close to where Ball-Bey was killed. He didn’t witness the shooting, but did see people with plain clothes walking around the scene on Wednesday afternoon.  

“In the neighborhood that we live in and the things that are going on in this community, the reaction from how they approached them was no different from a reaction of another opponent or opposition or somewhere from a different neighborhood that they might be rivaling with would approach them,” Harvey said.

“They were approached like ‘maybe these are people off the streets trying to shoot them,’” he added. “That’s the take we’re getting from everything.”

High alert

After protests in and around Fountain Park on Wednesday and Thursday, Dotson said his officers are on a heightened state of alert for the weekend. 

Teddy bears line the fence near the apartment when Ball-Bey was killed.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Teddy bears line the fence near the apartment when Ball-Bey was killed.

He says this was done “to protect the rights of those who come lawfully, but also to take action when criminals use those groups for their activities.”

“The Metropolitan Police Department has gone to 12 hour days and canceled days off,” Dotson said. “So there are no officers on recreation days ... and we started 12 hour shifts. Not because I want to respond to something, but because I want to keep the peace. Because I want to have officers available to be in the Central West End. To be on Grand Avenue. To be Downtown. To be visible.”

He said he and Mayor Francis Slay have met with Gov. Jay Nixon and the superintendent of the Missouri Highway Patrol. He says the governor has “pledged any support, as well as the Highway Patrol, to the city of St. Louis.

“In every aspect of what we do in the Metropolitan Police Department, I want to be open and transparent,” Dotson said. “From the creation of the Force Investigation Unit to the sharing of the autopsy results, which are just 24 hours old, to giving an update to the status of the statement from the officers, we will continue to share as much information as we can as quickly as we can.”

Why he was shot, not where he was shot

Meanwhile legal experts say that being shot in the back isn’t enough to prove that the police killing was unjustified under state statute.

“The question isn’t where the person was shot. The question is whether when the officer shot, the officer truly believed the person they were shooting was a danger and whether that belief was reasonable,” said Saint Louis University law professor Marcia McCormick. “Now shooting in the back is relevant though because we outsiders might look at that and say well if the person’s back is towards the officer it’s much less reasonable for the officer to think that person is a danger.”

“The U.S. Supreme Court has said in that context that a totally unarmed person who has not committed a violent felony is not likely to be posing a danger to the public and so police aren’t justified to use deadly force to stop that person. But the Supreme Court said that in the context of civil liability, and whether that’s a crime is not something the Supreme Court has ruled on,” McCormick added.

McCormick said that a police shooting could be found justified even when the person shot was facing away from the officer if the officer believed the person was a danger to others, or if the person was considered a fleeing felon.

“The weird thing about Missouri law is Missouri law seems to allow the police officer to shoot people who are fleeing even if the officer doesn’t have any belief about whether the person is dangerous,” said McCormick, referring to the fact that Missouri hasn’t adjusted state statute to comply with federal deadly force case law.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.