On Wednesday night, an alleged report from the Baltimore Police Department was leaked to The Washington Post claiming that Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old who died a week after his spine was fractured while in police custody, “was intentionally trying to injure himself” in the back of a Baltimore Police van.
The report, whose author is unknown, cites a single source: an unnamed second man who was in the van with Gray for a short time, but could not see him.
But if Freddie Gray was trying to break his own spinal cord in the back of a van, according to experts in spinal trauma injuries, it might be the first self-inflicted injury of its kind.
“I have never seen it before. I’ve never seen somebody self-inflict a spinal cord injury in that way,” says Anand Veeravagu, Chief Neurosurgery Resident at Stanford University Medical Center who specializes in traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries.
“It’s hard for me to understand that, unless those terms [like ‘intentional’ and ‘injure himself’] are being used incorrectly. It’s hard for me to envision how a person could try to do that,” he says. “It would require them to basically hang themselves in a car where there isn’t anything to hang yourself with.”
"Unless somebody jumps off a two-story building and the blunt force breaks (their spinal cord), then no, it is not a viable solution to think someone did this to themselves," says Harminder Singh, a Clinical Assitant Professor of Neurosurgery at Stanford School of Medicine.
Veeravagu says that there are only a few ways you can injure your spine in a similar way to the injuries that ultimately led to Gray’s death. One, he says, is by a sharp injury, which is a direct penetrating injury—either somebody with a knife “who knows what they’re doing, or something else that cuts through, like a gunshot wound.”
The other way, more pertinent to Gray’s case, is by trauma, where the bones are fractured and the ligaments are torn as a result of force or impact.
“It is very difficult to sever your spinal cord without a known fracture,” says Veeravagu. “Often, when patients come in with this kind of injury, you’ll find they’ve been either in a car accident or something similar to that kind of impact.”
There are times where Veeravagu, who is a former White House Fellow, has seen suicide or self-harm by means of a spinal cord injury, but it’s always by hanging, or by using an apparatus Gray couldn’t have had on-hand.
“Unfortunately, sometimes people attempt suicide by hanging themselves. It’s one of the only ways I’ve seen where you can (commit suicide or intentional self-harm) by spinal fracture. They kick their chair out, they fall, they snap their neck. It results in immediate spinal cord injury,” he says. “But it’s very hard to see how somebody could attempt suicide by a spinal cord injury without the use of something else.”
But it’s even in those instances, he says, patients often don’t die of a spinal cord injury. And most who are taken to the hospital in time after suffering spinal cord injuries—self-inflicted or not—survive the trauma.
“Most spinal cord injuries are not fatal if patients are taken to the hospital,” Veeravagu says. “Most survive.”
Outlets covering The Washington Post’s leak have called the claims from the unnamed source “a twist” and a “new narrative [that] questions police brutality claim.” On Wednesday night, CNN’s broadcast ran a breaking news banner that read: “BREAKING NEWS: WASH. POST: GRAY TRIED TO HURT HIMSELF,” and the video remains on CNN’s YouTube page.
The Washington Post’s initial report does not reach out to any medical professionals to determine the feasibility of the leaked document’s claims.
The official police report of Gray’s arrest was scheduled to be released publicly Friday, but police said Wednesday they were delaying the release.
“I’m surprised they released that piece of information without a more detailed account,” says Veeravagu.
Another trauma surgeon, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the political nature of the case and because he is “surprised time and again by what I previously believed to be impossible,” thinks that it’s “highly unusual [if not impossible] to deliberately make yourself a quadriplegic while shackled in the back of a police van.”
There are, Veeravagu says, situations that would make Gray more prone to a fatal spinal injury, however—like if someone or something applied pressure to his spine as it snapped.
“Certain conditions make people more prone to spinal injury. If you were to apply leverage to the spine at certain points, it basically converts the spine to a long bone,” says Veeravagu.
Veeravagu also says it’s possible Gray’s spinal fracture could have occurred before entering the van—and that symptoms of his broken vertebrae could have been delayed until he was placed in the van.
“That is possible: It’s possible to have an injury to your spinal cord that gets worse over time and eventually progresses to complete paralysis,” he says. “Did he have an expanding blood clot in his spine? Did he have an exact fracture to his spine? Both are important to understand. If the family does an autopsy—finding that out, that’s ideal.”