American Autopsy: One Medical Examiner’s Decades-Long Fight for Racial Justice in a Broken Legal System
- By Michael M. Baden, M.D.
- BenBella Books
- 320 pp.
- Reviewed by Michael Causey
- February 2, 2023
A noted forensic pathologist shares the horror of what he’s seen.
A good friend insists on covering a shift at a local morgue every Christmas. For 16 straight years, rather than drink eggnog and binge-watch holiday movies all day like most of us, this Decedent Affairs Coordinator has rolled up her sleeves and helped identify bodies, conduct autopsies, and handle other vital tasks not suited to the squeamish like me.
I’ve asked her why she does it, and she’s shrugged and tried to explain. But I don’t think I fully grasped her passion and mindset until I read this passage in former chief medical examiner of New York City Michael M. Baden’s American Autopsy:
“An autopsy is a holy thing for me. The person on the table in front of me, on any given day, has lived maybe fifty or sixty years, and I’m going to learn more about them than anybody in the world. I’m going to look at their kidneys and hold their heart in my hands and examine their brain. Life is a gift. When we perform an autopsy, we have a responsibility to take care, to try to learn things to help the family, and to teach others about life and death. You can’t make fun of dead bodies. You have to treat each one with the respect you would give a living person. You have to be appreciative of the miracle of life, even after death.”
Now I get it.
In this searing new book, the “body” being autopsied is the American criminal justice system. And the author finds some ugly, damning things inside the carcass. He’s no Forrest Gump, but Baden, a forensic pathologist, has been involved in the investigations surrounding several controversial, era-defining deaths, from Emmett Till and Martin Luther King Jr. to Nicole Brown Simpson, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and most recently, George Floyd.
Throughout it all, he’s witnessed overt racism among police and others in the legal system from the point of arrest up to the politically motivated cover-ups of police brutality. At times, American Autopsy feels like one man’s attempt to shine a spotlight on these wrongs and help to rectify them. Whether he’ll succeed remains to be seen.
The book is at its strongest when Baden is working among corpses or colleagues. It falters a bit when he’s interacting with those closer to him emotionally, such as his first wife and his children. Sections that recount, for example, a failing marriage or a son’s drug abuse feel oddly flat or forced. And as the father of twins who tries to be an equitable parent, I cringed at Baden identifying one of his own kids as “the brightest of my children.” It’s an odd lack of sensitivity in a man who excels at dealing with the bereaved parents of deceased children young and old.
Nevertheless, if Baden’s goal was to call out the racism endemic in the American justice system, he succeeds admirably. His journey from idealistic young physician who assumes the police are always the good guys to a more seasoned professional who recognizes the pernicious inequity all around him is sobering and eye-opening. American Autopsy represents a teachable opportunity for more sheltered readers whose own eyes need opening. Assuming their blinders haven’t been on for too long.
Michael Causey is the host of “A Good Hour,” airing every other Monday at 8 p.m. on WOWD 94.3 FM and takomaradio.org.