John Fountain: Too many young bodies lie lifeless in Chicago

It was a premature autopsy in Bigger Thomas’ town — 8:25 a.m. It took place Tuesday, Oct. 21, 2014, on the morning after 16 Shots.

Black male body, in a green hospital gown, identified by a toe tag. A tattoo in black ink on the right upper arm reads: “Quan” Another on the dorsum of the right hand reads: “Good Son.” A tan rubber band encircles his right wrist. Inventory: Blue jeans, black boxers, two black shoes … “The body is that of a well-developed, well-nourished black male  …” the coroner writes.

He looks 17. Weighs 180 pounds, measures 72 inches long. Just the facts. The pathologist is surgically precise. “There is good preservation in the absence of embalming.” The body is warm. Except Laquan McDonald, 17, is dead.


In the portrait of the Cook County medical examiner’s report, however, life and death intersect. They stare back with intimate, unsettling detail — with answers and also questions that cut like a scalpel. Among them:

If this autopsy, in one sense, is also a picture of life, then why does this body now lie lifeless — and among the hundreds of autopsies performed by the coroner each year on young black men, women and children in Chicago prematurely?

Autopsies inked prematurely: Before prom. Before college graduations. Before weddings.

Before really having had the chance to live.

Premature: “Occurring or done before the usual or proper time; too early.” Gone too soon. Lying lifeless on a coroner’s gurney for a final examination to officially declare death’s cause. Laquan’s bullet-riddled body lay inside the coroner’s office — less than six miles from where a Chicago cop the night before emptied his stainless steel, 9mm semiautomatic handgun into him, on South Pulaski Road. Less than 11 hours later, the body was still warm.

The post mortem records the wounds inflicted by each copper jacketed round; assessing damage, recovering bullets, deformed, mostly intact, or fragmented; numbering the gunshot wounds 1 to 16, “arbitrarily without regard to sequence or severity.”

Even in its clinical clarity — like the voice of a stoic preacher reciting funeral rites at a graveside — the final report reveals a certain brutality:

The gunshot graze wound to the left scalp, measuring 1¾ inches long and up to ¼-inch deep; the gunshot wound to the left base of the neck; the one to the left chest; to the right chest; to the left elbow and right upper arm; to the left forearm, right upper leg, left upper back, right lower back, right hand … Sixteen gunshot wounds in all.

The “tiny, white metal” bullet fragments recovered from the upper teeth, the right upper arm and clothing. These were also among the elements of death.

And yet, these were among the elements of life:

“The ears, nose and lips are unremarkable. The teeth are natural and in good condition … The neck and chest are symmetrical and the abdomen is flat. … The back is straight.

“…The thoracic and abdominal organs are in their normal anatomic positions. …The coronary arterial system is normally formed and free of significant atherosclerosis… The prostate gland is unremarkable externally.”

The pathologist’s determined cause of death: Multiple gunshot wounds. Manner of death: Homicide. Post mortem concluded.

Except I keep thinking that the key to preventing the premature autopsies of so many other native sons — and daughters — lies in examining, and also addressing, those elements that penetrated their lives with devastating impact, long before they ended up on a coroner’s slab.

A third tattoo in black ink that the coroner notes on the “dorsum of the left hand” makes this point so clear. It reads, “YOLO”

Translation: You Only Live Once.


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