The police had been looking for Johnny (not his real name) for months.
It was rumored he hid out at his mother's home when in town.
Police repeatedly obtained and executed search warrants on the house. No Johnny.
Leaving after one such frustrating search, an officer waved to a little boy on a big wheel bike.
"Hi," said the boy. "Are you looking for Johnny? He's in there," gesturing toward the house they had just searched.
"No, son, he's not. We just looked there," the officer said.
"Yeah, he is. He hides in the attic when you come. He brags about it, and we all laugh," the boy replied.
Embarrassed and angry, the police returned to the house. Searching carefully, they found a well-camouflaged, pull-down attic trap door in a bathroom closet.
One officer climbed the rickety ladder, gun in hand, and swept the cluttered attic with a flashlight. Nothing. As he was about to leave, he saw a booted foot sticking out behind a large trunk.
"I see you, Johnny. Come out with your hands up."
"You aren't taking me," Johnny screamed. He rose up, gun blazing.
One shot hit the officer. He staggered backward, returning fire, and fell through the trap door, striking and injuring his partner who was steadying the ladder.
Police fled the house carrying the injured officers.
"Officers down!" we heard on the radio in the medical examiner's office.
SWAT teams from multiple agencies surrounded Johnny's hideout. They called with bullhorns for Johnny to come out. No response. They lobbed tear gas canisters. Nothing.
When they crept into the house hours later, Johnny was still in the attic. Dead. He'd been shot multiple times.
Most wounds were on the front and side of Johnny's body, but one was on his left upper back. (Bodies often turn or twist while under fire.)
After completing the autopsy and a draft report, I met with the police chief, investigators from the outside agency assigned to investigate the case and a state's attorney.
"Gunshot Wounds to Chest, Abdomen, Flank and Back," my report said. "Homicide."
They didn't like it: Does it have to say back? Couldn't it say shoulder?
I was reminded of a seasoned detective who, as a young officer, stood guard over a prisoner lying prone on the ground. Startled by something, the officer flinched and pulled the trigger, fatally shooting the prisoner in the back. One of my predecessors had certified the cause of death as "Gunshot Wound to Trunk."
I said Johnny's family would almost certainly sue and that if my report said "shoulder," life-size autopsy photographs would appear in court.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the plaintiff's attorney would say, "this man was shot in the back. The medical examiner is in cahoots and trying to cover it up. Everything she's saying is a lie."
Allegations of cover-up taint a medical examiner's credibility like nothing else. Anything I might later say that would be favorable to the police would be suspect.
Autopsy reports and death certificates are no place for well-intended euphemisms.
firstname.lastname@example.org Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, has served as La Plata County coroner since January 2003.