OPINION | MIKE MASTERSON: Tell-tale photo


The years I spent between 1980 and 1995 producing investigative stories for the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Asbury Park Press and the Arizona Republic provided many unforgettable moments when hours of research and evidence often proved rewarding.

In weeks to come I'll explore some of those with valued readers.

One memorable afternoon occurred in the office of Dr. Robert Stein, at that time the nationally renowned chief medical examiner for Chicago and Cook County. He's now deceased.

I'd been investigating the death of a Black man while in police custody. Having sought out the family for an interview, I arrived to be handed a black-and-white photograph of the deceased man, whose face was terribly battered.

"See what they did to him," his wife told me. "It was just terrible. And we were told they coudn't ever determine how he died."

It was the shocking condition of his face and head that had prompted the family to document the obvious and undeniable signs of having been savagely beaten.

Dr. Stein notoriously played things close to his vest. So when I told him I was inquiring about a specific case and asked to see the autopsy report, he assigned me to a table on the opposite end of his sprawling office while he retrieved the document. Placing the report in front of me, he returned to his desk as I began reading.

He didn't realize I'd already had seen the copy obtained by the family, so I knew what it did--and didn't--contain. I was searching to see if anything had been altered between the reports. Nothing had.

The most glaring omission was any description whatsoever of the extensive damage to the man's face, which appeared even to this layman to likely have played some role in his death in custody.

Approaching Dr. Stein's desk, I handed him the report and thanked him. It was clear he now expected me to leave. But I was planning I suppose what's best described as a "Columbo" moment (after the TV program popular at the time).

"Oh, I just have one more thing, Doctor," I said. "Since you signed this report, I assume you conducted the postmortem. Do you always describe every injury you identify to a body in your autopsies?"

"Yes, that is my signature, and yes, I most certainly do document every injury," he answered.

I removed the photograph from my shirt pocket and handed it to him, asking for his opinion of the condition of the man's face. He studied it for a long moment, then looked up and said, "Well, it appears he's suffered contusions and injury to his head and face, based on the picture."

"The kinds of things you ordinarily would note in an autopsy?"

"Why, yes."

"Well, since this is the man whose autopsy I just read and is lying there on the desk, I notice there's no mention of anything at all being visible on the man's face or head. Can you explain how that is?"

He picked up the report again and read the portion about the face and head, then laid it back down, looked up and said, "I'm afraid I'm already late for a meeting, so I'll walk you out. Glad I could be of help."

The resulting story appeared in the Sun-Times, as did others documenting other Black men in Chicago who'd died in custody over the preceding two years. It all ended with the FBI becoming involved and reforms in the Chicago Police Department.

A bad week

This past week was a very bad one (probably worst ever) for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Justice, with revelations of blatant, unaccountable wrongdoing in the "Russiagate" scandal that was politically concocted, according to the Durham Report, along with three former FBI agents testifying to Congress about politicized involvement and actions by the FBI's hierarchy. Their careers and lives have been destroyed by the agency for spilling the beans.

These revelations of such "political weaponization" at the top of our once-revered federal justice system were equally bad or worse for the many dedicated FBI employees and agents in the hinterlands who serve at the mercy of their compromised D.C. office, as well as being a shock to U.S. citizens who trusted the agency to be fair and objective.

The wide-ranging corrupt practices, as revealed--with subjects ranging from focuses on conservative citizens and parents of schoolchildren to questionable investigation tactics and two presidents--have the potential to go down as the worst government scandal in our 246-year history, regardless of political beliefs.

Pet peeves

Don't forget I'm interested in receiving yours.

Here's another of mine: People who thoughtlessly block an entire grocery aisle with one cart and their bodies.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.


Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.


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