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The Forensic Fighter

From battling the NFL to challenging police shootings, Dr. Bennet Omalu has used his scalpel to expose the truth.

SLIDESHOW

Forensic bulldog: Bennet Omalu in his Stockton office.

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A preserved human brain and the tools used to unlock its secrets.

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Disputed shooting: At a press conference, Omalu points to an illustration of the findings of an autopsy he performed on Stephon Clark.

Photo: NBC News

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Sacramento Police Chief Daniel Hahn is interviewed as Clark’s family calls for charges to be brought against the officers involved in the shooting.

Photo: CNN

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Bennet Omalu is not a man who seeks out controversy. He’s been known to flee it, in fact. But it has a way of finding him. 

On March 18, 22-year-old Stephon Clark became the latest flash point in the ongoing national furor over the police use of force against African Americans. After the unarmed black man was shot and killed by Sacramento police officers in the backyard of his grandmother’s house, Black Lives Matter activists led a march that shut down Interstate 5 and forced the cancellation of a Sacramento Kings NBA game. A week after the shooting, during a game between the Kings and the Boston Celtics, both teams wore jerseys with Clark’s name and the words “Accountability” and “We Are One” on them during warm-ups and the playing of the national anthem.

Soon after Clark’s death, his family contacted Omalu, a forensic pathologist, and asked him to perform a private autopsy. On March 30, Omalu released his findings. He determined that Clark had been shot eight times and that six of the bullets had entered the back of his body. This cast doubt on the veracity of the police report, which stated that Clark had been approaching the officers when they fired. In response to what the county coroner called the “erroneous information” provided by Omalu, the following day the county released its official autopsy, which found that Clark had been shot seven times, only three times in the back.

The Clark case is ongoing—in September, the family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Sacramento Police Department. But whatever happens isn’t likely to faze Omalu. He’s used to being in the hot seat.

A soft-spoken, devoutly Catholic 50-year-old forensic pathologist from Nigeria is not exactly the first person you’d expect to keep materializing at the center of major American controversies involving contested deaths and charges of official cover-ups. Yet Bennet Omalu has now played a leading role in three such scandals—including the mother of all sports-medicine train wrecks, the National Football League concussion debacle.

The breakthrough discovery Omalu made that led to that uproar—and inspired the 2017 movie Concussion, in which he was played by Will Smith—was as unlikely as Omalu’s own life story. While laboring in obscurity in a county coroner’s office in Pennsylvania in 2002, Omalu performed a routine autopsy on former NFL player Mike Webster—and determined that he had severe brain damage caused by football-induced concussions. That finding, backed up by several subsequent autopsies on other football players, shook the NFL to its $80 billion foundation and had severe consequences for Omalu’s personal life and mental health. Overwhelmed, Omalu fled to sleepy Lodi, California, only to once again find himself in the middle of a bitter debate about accountability, this one involving law enforcement. That clash inspired a hotly contested piece of state legislation, cost his antagonist, the county sheriff, his job, and led Omalu himself to resign in December 2017. And then came the Clark case.

Omalu recently turned 50, but the early stages of middle age seem to have slipped past without registering. Up close, his skin is impossibly smooth, his round face youthful almost to the point of cartoonish. In June, I meet him at a café in Stockton, an hour after he testified as an expert witness in a murder case being tried in San Joaquin County superior court. On the stand, Omalu described to the jury in graphic detail how six bullets had traveled through a victim’s body. Now, as he tucks into a breakfast burrito, he shares some of his ­courtroom-presentation secrets. “If you saw today, I wasn’t dramatic, but my intonation goes up and down. I said something, and one of the jury members said, ‘Oh wow!’” he tells me, grinning widely. “You try to bring them along with you. I watch them. If they are all sitting up looking at you, then you know you’ve got them. If I testify and a jury member falls asleep, I’m not doing a good job.”

Omalu’s smiles frequently give way to high-pitched giggles, an unexpected habit for someone who has spent his professional life examining the corpses of people who were shot, bludgeoned, or suffocated, or who otherwise suffered some unspeakably violent end. In his autobiography, Truth Doesn’t Have a Side, Omalu comes across as a complex man, prone to depression, quick to weep from joy or sorrow, and driven by profound religious faith. But in person, he’s outgoing and effusive, answering my questions and quickly moving on to whatever else is on his mind.

“We don’t have a justice system,” he says unprompted. “I must emphasize that. We have a legal system that seeks justice. And many times it’s bullshit.” He giggles. “We should call it ­something else—the Department of Legal Affairs or something.” 


For a man
who became a forensic pathologist in part because, he says, it “placed me as far away as possible from living, breathing patients while still allowing me to practice medicine,” Omalu has had a career—and a life—crowded with high-pressure human interaction. He grew up in a village in southern Nigeria during the Biafran War; his family was displaced, and his father was almost killed at a checkpoint manned by militiamen hostile to his Igbo tribe. He earned his medical degree but suffered from depression and desperately wanted to get out of corruption-riddled Nigeria, where he once watched a patient die in a hospital because the surgeon on duty inexplicably refused to operate. In 1994, Omalu managed to obtain a coveted visa and immigrated to the United States to study cancer epidemiology at the University of Washington.

Omalu venerated the United States as a place that “sets you free to be whatever you want to be,” but in Seattle he learned about its darker side: Employees followed him in the grocery store, and police repeatedly stopped him as he walked through his mostly white neighborhood. Omalu didn’t understand what was going on—“I thought there was something wrong with me,” he says—until his landlady suggested that he go to the library and read up on U.S. history. “Slavery, ah! Civil rights, ah!” Omalu says as he slaps his hand down on the café table, recalling his sense of discovery. After Seattle, he did a residency in clinical and anatomical pathology at Columbia University, then completed several fellowships and earned master’s degrees in public health and business administration at other universities. His curriculum vitae runs to 32 pages. He was determined that his skin color would not hold him back, and he regarded education as the key. “I may have overcompensated,” he jokes.

Omalu sees forensic pathology as a calling. To discover how a person died is to tell a story, to reveal truths that some might prefer be kept hidden, and to accord the deceased a final measure of dignity. “For you to succeed in this field, it shouldn’t just be work,” he says. “It should be like art.”

Omalu produced his forensic masterpiece in 2002, as an unknown pathologist in the coroner’s office in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. One day, he was assigned to perform an autopsy on the brain of former ­Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, and he discovered that it was riddled with lesions—the first diagnosed case in an NFL player of what he would come to call chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Additional research confirmed his hypothesis: The repeated blows to the head suffered by most football players put them at risk for serious brain damage. The league questioned his research, demanded retractions, impugned his reputation, and hired its own team of doctors to muddy the waters. But Omalu held firm, movingly recounting in his book how in the autopsy room he had made a solemn promise to Webster, as a fellow child of God, to find out the truth about his death. And the truth—despite the high-priced doctors and lawyers, their denials, and junk studies funded by the NFL—­eventually came out. 

During a long and tortuous process that culminated with a class action lawsuit brought by 20,000 former NFL players—and the league finally admitting that there was a link between football and CTE and creating a $765 million fund to help deal with the problem—Omalu became a hot commodity. Journalists sought him out for quotes, and job offers came in from all over the country. But there were just as many negatives: Strange cars began following him; other scientists took credit for his discovery. Battered and overwhelmed, Omalu fell into a deep depression. I wish I had never met Mike Webster, he told himself.

At this moment, an unlikely escape hatch opened: Out in California, an official at San Joaquin General Hospital began wooing him to be the county’s chief forensic pathologist. Omalu and his Kenyan-born wife, Prema, were flown out and given tours of San Francisco, Sacramento, and Napa Valley. Worried about her husband’s depression and smitten with the idea of a move west, Prema urged Omalu to take the job. He did, and in 2007 they moved with their son to Lodi, a midsize city north of Stockton that is surrounded by farmland. It felt like the middle of nowhere, which was just what they were looking for. He and his family soon fell in love with San Joaquin County.

“Lower profile, no NFL presence,” Omalu says, taking a sip of herbal tea. “I just wanted out. A lot of people think I want attention. I don’t. I was running away from it.” He didn’t realize he was about to find himself involved in another high-profile controversy.

Omalu’s new boss was the sheriff of San Joaquin County, a bow tie–­wearing department veteran named Steve Moore. The system Omalu would be working in, called a sheriff-coroner system, is highly unusual. In Pennsylvania, Omalu had worked within the far more common medical examiner system, in which physicians, often board certified in forensic pathology, declare the manner of death. Only in California, South Dakota, Montana, and Nevada can the person who makes that determination also be the county’s top law enforcement officer. In a ­sheriff-coroner system, a forensic pathologist like Omalu is responsible only for determining the medical cause of death, such as asphyxiation or blunt force trauma. The far more legally consequential manner of death—accident, homicide, or suicide—is ruled on by the sheriff, although the medical official also issues a recommendation. The potential conflict of interest is obvious: When a person dies in police custody, should the sheriff be the one investigating their death?

Although Omalu found this arrangement bizarre, he wasn’t particularly concerned at first. This wasn’t Nigeria, where corruption was rampant, and he didn’t expect a law enforcement officer to overrule his findings or limit his investigations. Even when Moore prevented him from visiting a crime scene, as Omalu alleges he did on many occasions, he kept his head down and did as he was told. When Moore yelled at Omalu, he’d just “smile at him and have a Guinness stout later,” Omalu says. He had come to California to raise his family and stay out of the headlines, not to rock the boat. And if a conflict did arise, he had gone up against the NFL and won: He could surely handle a single sheriff.

Omalu’s first major problem with Moore began in the summer of 2008, after the body of Daniel Lee Humphreys was wheeled into the morgue. The 47-year-old had crashed his motorcycle on Interstate 5 while fleeing from a California Highway Patrol officer, then attempted to climb the median that divided the freeway, whereupon the officer had shocked him with a Taser. According to newspaper reports, Humphreys’s ex-wife was told that the CHP officer had discharged his Taser twice. When a Taser is used, the sheriff’s office is required to create a printout documenting its use. Omalu waited six months for the printout, but it didn’t arrive. At that point, and without more information to guide his autopsy, he examined Humphreys’s preserved brain and found that he had suffered a mild traumatic brain injury—a ­concussion—which in rare cases can lead to death. He concluded that Humphreys’s death had likely been caused by a head injury suffered during the crash.

It wasn’t until two years later that Omalu finally obtained the Taser printout from an assistant district attorney. It had been created the day after the incident, and it showed that Humphreys had been shocked 31 times over a period of more than seven minutes. Omalu revised his autopsy: He now found that Humphreys had been killed by “repeated conducted electrical excitation.” He also changed his recommendation concerning the manner of death from accident to homicide. (Homicide does not imply murder; it simply means a death caused by a person or persons.) Despite the new information, Sheriff Moore continued to classify the death as an accident.

Omalu was angered by this, and in a larger sense by what he considered Moore’s dictatorial tendencies. He also balked at the county’s practice of removing the hands of corpses to identify individuals, which Omalu considered unnecessary and, as he later wrote, “a form of body mutilation.” But he remained in his post, convinced that his prime responsibility was to “protect the autopsy,” as he told me. Omalu is not a particularly modest man, and he was certain that he could slowly change the culture of the sheriff-coroner’s office from within. 

All that changed in 2016. That year, three people in San Joaquin County died while being arrested by police, and in two of the cases, Omalu and Moore again clashed. The first case, in March, involved a man named Abelino Cordova-Cuevas. What happened between Cordova-Cuevas and the arresting officer is disputed. The Stockton Police Department claims that, after a traffic stop, the 28-year-old ran from his vehicle and fought with officers, which led them to use a choke hold and a Taser to subdue him. An attorney representing the family of Cordova-Cuevas, citing witnesses, claims that the man’s hands were up in surrender and that he told officers he didn’t have a weapon. Omalu judged the death a homicide caused by asphyxiation, compression of the neck, and blunt force trauma to the head, face, neck, and trunk. But Moore’s office ignored his recommendation and concluded that the death was an accident.

In May 2017, Omalu expressed his concerns about Moore to a colleague, Michelle Jorden, the chief medical examiner of Santa Clara County. Jorden was not entirely surprised: Until the previous year, Santa Clara County had had a sheriff-coroner system too, and Jorden had once accused the sheriff’s office of impeding her investigations. Jorden suggested that Omalu and Susan Parson, a forensic pathologist who had joined his staff, document their experiences in memos.

Several months after his conversation with Jorden, Omalu was called to a meeting with Moore to discuss his autopsy of Samuel Augustine Jr., who had died in June 2016 during an arrest. Omalu had determined that the 57-year-old had suffered traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries, and he’d listed the manner of death as homicide.

At the meeting, according to a memo Omalu drafted the following day, Moore told him that his autopsy findings were flawed. “He did not see what the police did wrong in their arrest of the individual and there was nothing in the medical records to support the autopsy findings,” Omalu wrote. Moore ordered him to watch a video of the arrest, which he believed would prove that Omalu was mistaken. “I viewed the video and pointed out to him the numerous occasions during the arrest when the injury suffered by the deceased could have been sustained,” Omalu wrote. Nonetheless, Moore’s office determined that the death was an accident.

“In my mind,” Omalu wrote, “he seems to believe that every officer involved death should be ruled an accident because the police did not mean to kill anyone.” What he had once considered an “anomaly” had “become routine practice,” he noted.

In November 2017, Omalu’s colleague Parson resigned, motivated in part by what she described as Moore’s “intrusion into physician independence.” Parson had come to the sheriff-coroner’s office in 2016 for the chance to work with Omalu, but she had an adversarial relationship with Moore, who she felt tried to control her every move, and over the summer she had filed a ­gender-harassment complaint against Moore’s office. (Parson, who now works as a forensic pathologist for Santa Clara County, declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Several days later, Omalu resigned as well. The pair released to the press more than 100 pages of memos in which they described what they considered to be gross incompetence and interference on the part of Moore and his staff. Their resignations sparked widespread media coverage and elicited a rebuttal statement from Moore: “There have been questions recently about whether I have interfered with forensic investigations. That has never happened.”

In March 2018, as Moore came under increasing scrutiny, his office reclassified the death of Cordova-Cuevas as a homicide. In April, the county released an independent audit of the sheriff-coroner’s office, spurred by the resignations. “The office must be and appear to be independent of law enforcement particularly when investigating deaths in the custody of law enforcement or while in jail/prison,” the auditor wrote. “This requires a complete shift towards a Medical Examiner System.” The following month, the county supervisors voted unanimously to endorse such a shift. In June, Moore, a three-time incumbent, faced a retired deputy sheriff named Pat Withrow, whose campaign highlighted Omalu’s resignation. In an upset, Withrow defeated Moore by 17 points.

Moore vigorously disputes every one of Omalu’s allegations. In a phone interview, he said that Omalu was never prevented from visiting a crime scene. Asked about the missing Taser printout, Moore’s office replied, “Neither the sheriff or chief deputy coroner was aware of the printout until Dr. Omalu provided the information.” Moore also strongly denies that he ever attempted to influence Omalu’s findings and points out that, by state law, he had no need to do so, since he had the final say as to the manner of death.

This is true, of course. But what Moore doesn’t say is that in controversial instances, a sheriff’s ruling that is contradicted by the medical examiner is more open to question.

The California State Sheriffs’ Association—of which Moore is the president—has fought to preserve the sheriff-coroner system. In 2016, the association successfully lobbied against a provision in a state bill that would have shifted the responsibility for determining the manner of death from the sheriff-coroner to the medical examiner.


Omalu’s resignation
made waves. The most consequential outcome, beyond Moore’s ouster, was Senate Bill 1303, which would, if passed, require California counties with populations greater than 500,000 to adopt a medical examiner system. (Counties with their own charters, like Alameda, would be exempt from the legislation; the affected counties would be Contra Costa, Kern, Riverside, Sonoma, San Joaquin, and Stanislaus.)

Several hours after testifying in San Joaquin County superior court, Omalu is pulling his rolling suitcase through the halls of the state capitol, where he will speak in support of SB 1303, which he has been working hard to get passed. (He and his family moved to Sacramento after Concussion hit theaters and strangers began coming by his house.) The hearing is on the fourth floor, in a room crowded with lobbyists and observers. At the front sit the members of the state assembly’s Committee on Local Government, which will vote on whether to send the bill to another committee and move it closer to passage. Omalu speaks for a few minutes, as does Senator Richard Pan, a pediatrician from Sacramento, who introduced the bill in February. Seated several feet from Omalu is Kimberly Gin, the coroner of Sacramento County. Gin is opposing the bill as a representative of the California State Coroners Association. She argues that the new system would be more costly and that creating a medical examiner system would not fix anything, because medical examiners, like sheriff-coroners, can have biases.

Omalu and Gin don’t address each other directly, but they recently crossed scalpels over the Stephon Clark case. It was Gin who had called Omalu’s findings in his private autopsy “erroneous.”

After a series of questions from lawmakers, an initial count shows that the bill is two votes short of moving out of committee. In the hallway outside the hearing room, Omalu stands next to Douglas Chiappetta, the legislative director of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, to which Omalu belongs. A stocky middle-aged man with dark circles under his eyes, Chiappetta is fuming. “This is ugly bullshit,” he tells Omalu. “The bill could be dead.” Omalu looks out of place and a bit confused as people in suits mill about, clipboards in hand. “I don’t understand,” he says quietly to no one in particular. “C’mon,” Chiappetta says. He and Omalu corner a reluctant politician in the hall and make their points. Chiappetta comes away satisfied. “Now there’s one vote to get, and we’re going to get it,” he says.

Omalu follows Chiappetta on a series of shortcuts through the labyrinthine building—“I do not enjoy doing this,” the pathologist says as he struggles to keep up—toward the office of Ana Caballero, a Democrat whose district includes the Salinas Valley. As we walk, Chiappetta explains the challenge they face: Regardless of the political party, “nobody wants to go against law enforcement.”

The California State Sheriffs’ Association has argued in a letter of opposition that the legislation would take control away from the counties and that the sheriff-coroner approach establishes “crucial checks and balances” within a system that allows “different types of professionals to do their distinct jobs and come together in a unified manner.” There is a distinct subtext to the argument: Changing the system would give too much power to those who might have an anti-police agenda.

At Caballero’s office, Chiappetta and Omalu enter a conference room and talk to her chief of staff for several minutes, but they emerge without a firm answer. Chiappetta hustles down the hall, texting union bigwigs, calling his supervisor, getting ready to huddle with a lobbyist from the California Medical Association, the politically powerful group that represents the state’s physicians.

“So, do you need me for anything else?” Omalu asks. His eight-year-old son has a basketball game that afternoon that he hopes to catch. And he needs to attend to the consulting practice that has paid his bills since he left the county job; he now offers medical-legal expertise and services ranging from clinical neuropathology to forensic autopsy. Also, Omalu rose at two o’clock this morning to say the rosary—what he calls “a new phase in my spiritual journey.” For the first time today, his face betrays a hint of fatigue.

Chiappetta, still texting, shakes his head. As the gears of democracy continue to grind behind him, Omalu walks out of the capitol and into the bright afternoon sun. He left behind a job he loved in a county he loved, and the bill he has worked on for months is in jeopardy. (It later passed the committee and cleared several other hurdles, only to be vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown, whose office issued a boilerplate statement that such decisions were best left to local jurisdictions.) He flips on his sunglasses and smiles. As he walks to his car, he talks about how quickly his son is progressing as a basketball player.

Isn’t he worried about the bill? He smiles again and dabs his forehead with a handkerchief. “All you can do is do your best,” he says. His name, Omalu, is the shortened version of his father’s surname, Onyemalu­kwube. In Igbo, the language spoken by Omalu’s ancestral tribe in southeastern Nigeria, it means “If you know, come forth and speak.” He had spoken up. And, as he learned in his fight with the NFL, what comes next nobody can predict. 


Originally published in the November issue of
San Francisco

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