Monday, 21 August 2023 07:08

Mississippi Goddam Chapter 3: The Autopsy

Flowers adorn Billey Joe Johnson’s grave. Credit: Imani Khayyam for Reveal

The autopsy of Billey Joe Johnson Jr. helped a grand jury conclude that his death was an accident. But an independent review of the autopsy came to a different conclusion.

After Billey Joe Johnson Jr. died in 2008, the state of Mississippi outsourced his autopsy. Al Letson and Jonathan Jones travel to Nashville, Tennessee, to interview the doctor who conducted it. Her findings helped lead a grand jury to determine Johnson’s death was an accidental shooting. However, Letson and Jones share another report that raises doubts about her original conclusions.

This episode was originally broadcast in October 2021.

Photos

A maroon truck sits in a field of grass at the edge of a stand of trees. There is a tarp over the back of the truck.
The maroon truck Billey Joe Johnson was driving the morning he died, now overgrown in his family’s yard. Credit: Imani Khayyam for Reveal
Dr. Adele Lewis sits at her desk in an office lined with books and photos. Al Letson holds a microphone as he leans on the desk.
Al Letson (right) and Jonathan Jones (not pictured) interview Dr. Adele Lewis in her office. Credit: Jonathan Jones/Reveal
Al Letson, wearing a white jacket and jeans, walks underneath an installation of suspended blocks of metal.
Al Letson explores the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. Credit: Jonathan Jones/Reveal

Dig Deeper

Listen: The whole Mississippi Goddam series

Read: A detailed history of Mississippi’s troubled death investigation system, from the coroner juries in the 1950s to its efforts to cover up racial violence through the creation of the State Medical Examiner’s Office and the controversies surrounding its go-to pathologist in the decades before Billey Joe Johnson’s death.

Explore: Dig into the case files and documents about the death of Billey Joe Johnson.

Read: The autopsy report by the Mississippi State Medical Examiner’s Office

See: A computer-generated image prepared for the grand jury showing how Billey Joe Johnson allegedly shot himself

Credits

Reporters and producers: Al Letson and Jonathan Jones | Series editor and executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Series producer: Michael I Schiller | Series digital editor: Nina Martin | Series assistant producer: Steven Rascón | Series production manager: Amy Mostafa | Series digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Fact checker: Rosemarie Ho | Reporting and producing help: Ko Bragg, Michael Montgomery and Laurel Hennen Vigil | Original score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda with help from Claire Mullen, Najib Aminy, Brett Simpson and Ameeta Ganatra | Special thanks: Katharine Mieszowski, Alexis Toomer, Jen Chien, Esther Kaplan, Sumi Aggarwal and Christa Scharfenberg

Mama Blue sang our theme song, which was written and composed by Nina Simone. Thanks to the Nina Simone estate and Music and Strategy. News and sports footage of Billey Joe Johnson courtesy of Gray Media Group Inc., WLOX-TV.

Series photos by Imani Khayyam. Logo design by Joan Wong.

Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the Park Foundation.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. It’s May 7th, 1955 in Belzoni, Mississippi. It’s a warm summer evening in the Mississippi Delta, the type of night where fireflies synchronize their light and lead a chorus of wondrous small things that fill the air. That simple beauty belies a tension that has blanketed the area. The Brown V Board of Education ruling has come down and many white southerners are not happy.
Speaker 1: All the people of the South are in favor of segregation. Supreme Court or no Supreme Court, we are going to maintain segregated schools down in Dixie.
Al Letson: Despite the overwhelming opposition to equality in the state, many activists put their lives on the line. Reverend George W. Lee became a successful businessman in Belzoni and was a fiery preacher in the pulpit. He believed Black folks’ deliverance would come from God and getting people to the polls, that wasn’t a small order. Racists tried to stop them from registering to vote by imposing poll taxes, literacy tests, and intimidation. But Lee was insuppressible. He passed their tests, paid their taxes, and when that didn’t work, he took them to court. Ultimately, Lee was one of the first Black men to register to vote in Humphreys County since reconstruction.
He founded the local chapter of the NAACP and was determined to get other Black people registered, and that put him on the radar of white supremacist terrorists. They warned him to stop, but Reverend Lee would not be moved. On this balmy night, driving home from work, headlights flash in Reverend Lee’s rearview mirror. Suddenly, a car pulls up beside him. Inside, a white man has a shotgun. Lee tries to get away, but the car keeps pace. The assailant looks at him, aims the weapon, and shoots several times. Witnesses hear the gunshots, the sound of cars on the road, and then a loud crash. Lee loses control and swerves off the road, running right into the porch of a nearby house. A young witness sees blood seeping out of the bullet holes in his body. Hours later, Reverend Lee will be declared dead. The county coroner is called to the scene.
Tucker Carringt…: When a suspicious death was reported, the coroner would show up and he or she would determine whether in fact the death was suspicious.
Al Letson: Tucker Carrington is the Founding Director of the Innocence Project at the University of Mississippi School of Law. He’s helped free seven wrongly convicted people from prison and is an expert on death investigations in Mississippi.
Tucker Carringt…: For decades, white Southerners fought integration and tried to preserve white supremacy with racial violence, most notably through lynching. Mississippi’s death investigation system evolved into a powerful tool to help those atrocities.
Al Letson: Back in the 1950s when Reverend Lee was killed, a coroner would typically just assemble what was called a coroner’s jury.
Tucker Carringt…: They would typically, for the jury, choose fellow white citizens. Now, this isn’t anything as formal as a jury in a courtroom, oftentimes it was really nothing more than the coroner standing over or near the body and sometimes gesturing to people who might’ve been nearby, some of whom might’ve been eyewitnesses. In virtually every case, of course, they would determine that instead of a suspicious death, the death had occurred of some non-suspicious nature, heart failure, an accidental car crash.
Al Letson: That’s what the all-white inquest into Reverend Lee’s death concluded, an unfortunate car crash. Now, in Mississippi, the coroner is an elected politician, they don’t have to have any medical experience. In this case, the coroner didn’t even have an autopsy performed on Reverend Lee, his family had hired doctors to do it privately. Those doctors found shotgun pellets in Lee’s skull. The family confronted the sheriff with this new evidence. His response was pretty ludicrous. He said the shotgun pellets found in Lee’s head were probably nothing more than tooth fillings. This was like a normal practice in Mississippi at the time, correct?
Tucker Carringt…: It was not only a normalized practice, but it was part of a broader sophisticated effort post reconstruction. Mississippi and other southern states enacted a host of measures to ensure essentially that African-Americans remained almost as enslaved as they had been when they were in fact, slaves.
Al Letson: The coroner and his jury transformed the murder of Reverend Lee from a lynching into a full-blown government conspiracy. No one was ever brought to justice for his murder.
All of this may seem like a long time ago and can be dismissed as ancient history, but this was the basis for the system that is still in place today.
This is Reveal’s Serial Investigation.
Speaker 2: Alabama’s got me so upset, Tennessee made me lose my rest, and everybody knows about Mississippi, God damn.
Al Letson: Mississippi, God Damn, the ballad of Billey Joe.
We’re revisiting a series we first brought you back in 2021. It spans seven episodes of Reveal to tell the story of Billey Joe Johnson, a 17-year-old Black high school student who died during a traffic stop with a white deputy in Lucedale, Mississippi.
In the last episode, we talked about one theory that came out after Billey Joe died, that he might’ve taken his own life. His friends and family don’t believe it, which brings us to episode three, the autopsy. But before we get into that, we have to understand what was going on with Mississippi death investigations in the decades leading up to Billey Joe’s death. In the 1970s and eighties, some reforms were passed, those coroners juries were abolished, and Mississippi set up a State Medical Examiner’s Office to investigate sudden, violent, or suspicious deaths, and conduct autopsies whenever necessary. The coroner is still an elected position, but now autopsies must be performed by a certified forensic pathologist. In spite of all of this, the problems didn’t go away.
Tucker Carringt…: Long story short, the medical-legal system in Mississippi throughout much of the nineties and into the 2000s was substandard. It was shot through with fraud, it was overworked, it was overpaid. People were making lots of money at the expense of the citizens of the state of Mississippi.
Al Letson: And the man who made the most money off the system was Dr. Steven Hayne.
Speaker 3: If you died in Mississippi of any sort of suspicious circumstances, chances are Dr. Hayne was going to be cutting you open.
Al Letson: Hayne got so much work because no one was in the role of State Medical Examiner, that led to poor oversight of autopsies and a windfall for Hayne. Between the 1980s and the early 2000s, he did most of the state’s autopsies. One year, he claimed to have performed 1800 of them, that’s about six to seven a day, Hayne made about $1 million that year. Tucker says Hayne was a prosecutor’s dream.
Tucker Carringt…: Turns out he wasn’t qualified to be the medical examiner because he hadn’t passed the required licensing, but he began to offer his services essentially at discount rates because he would do autopsies in bulk.
Al Letson: The Innocence Project and reporters began digging into Hayne’s work and they turned up more problems.
Speaker 4: A Wall Street Journal editorial accuses a former state medical examiner of making mistakes during his examinations.
Speaker 5: Mistakes that would lead to innocent people going to jail.
Al Letson: The editorial came after the Mississippi Supreme Court threw out the murder conviction of a 13-year-old boy because of Hayne’s testimony in the case. More of Hayne’s cases were overturned, including two high profile murder convictions. The exonerated men spent a combined 33 years behind bars. The Innocence Project wrote letters to district attorneys in Mississippi asking them to go back and review all the cases that Hayne had worked on, and not a single district attorney decided to do so.
In 2008, the Department of Public Safety finally removed Hayne from the list of approved medical examiners.
Tucker Carringt…: The problem with the Dr. Hayne situation is that the state has refused to undertake a serious examination, not only of how this could have occurred, how we can prevent it from occurring in the future, but what damage did it do? Who was affected? Who’s locked up? What cases remain unsolved?
Al Letson: In September 2008, just three months before Billey Joe’s death, the Mississippi legislature issued a damning report. It concluded that the State Medical Examiner’s Office lacked the staff and resources to ensure that suspicious deaths could be resolved competently. Tucker says that system disproportionately harmed poor, Black people in Mississippi.
Tucker Carringt…: The point is not that every elected official in Mississippi’s criminal justice system was or is motivated by bigotry. Nevertheless, the system in which he, Dr. Steven Hayne and the State’s coroners, operated was built on racism.
Al Letson: When Billey Joe Johnson dies in December of 2008, what’s the state of the medical examiner’s office at that point?
Tucker Carringt…: Well, it would’ve been the beginning of the end of the Stephen Hayne era and when the state was beginning to be confronted with the fact that it had a significant mess on its hands.
Al Letson: Would it be fair to say that it was in transition and things were kind of messy?
Tucker Carringt…: It was absolutely in transition, things were still messy. They’re still messy now.
Al Letson: With their go-to medical examiner gone, the state scrambled to find someone to do those autopsies. Ultimately, Mississippi hired a private company of forensic pathologists out of Tennessee. Dr. Adele Lewis was one of their pathologists. In December 2008, she conducted Billey Joe Johnson’s autopsy. What she found would help convince the grand jury that Billey Joe’s death was an accidental shooting, but questions have been raised about her findings.
Dr. Judy Meline…: The original pathologist actually did a pretty decent job in describing the injuries, so the error was in the interpretation.
Al Letson: That’s after the break. You’re listening to Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. In 2008, when Billey Joe Johnson’s body arrived at the State Medical Examiner’s Office, things were a mess. First of all, the medical examiner’s position was vacant, so they didn’t have a clear leader in the office, that meant no oversight for years and a backlog of cases.
The state hired a private group of pathologists out of Tennessee to take over, but that wasn’t smooth sailing either. The pathologists were overwhelmed with workload, often doing five to six autopsies a day. The crime lab was old and out of date, and in the summertime they couldn’t even run the AC because the rest of the building didn’t like the smell. Let me tell you, Jackson, Mississippi cooks in the summer. These are conditions that Dr. Adele Lewis had to work in. She was a part of that Tennessee group of pathologists, and she performed Billey Joe Johnson’s autopsy on December 9th, 2008. She had been told that a 17-year-old Black kid had been stopped by a white cop, the teenager got out of his truck and shot himself with his own shotgun while the police officer was in his cruiser. She takes that information and goes to work.
We know what Dr. Lewis said in the autopsy report because it was among the documents that Billey Joe’s sister, Tiffany, gave us. Remember, she and her family fought to get the case files because officials initially refused to turn them over.
Tiffany: When it came down to us asking for specific stuff like the court footage, autopsy reports, everything that we supposed to had that they refused us of is what we got, they weren’t willing to give it to us.
Al Letson: We’re going to let you see the autopsy report plus a lot of other documents. Stick around for the end of the show and we’ll tell you how to do that. But for now, let me tell you what the autopsy report says. Before we get into it, a warning, some of this material is disturbing and graphic. It’s just four pages long, and on the first page it lists the name of the deceased; Johnson, Billey Joe Jr, his race, sex, age, plus time, date, and location of his death. The pathologist’s name, Adele M Lewis, MD. Then, it has pathologic diagnoses, in other words, how he died. It lists shotgun wound to the head with a close range entrance wound to the left side of the head with injuries to the scalp, skull, brain, face, and mouth.
On page two, Dr. Lewis gets into more detail. She writes that the shotgun pellets cut off his left ear and entered the cranial cavity. She notes there’s no soot around the outside of the wound. That’s going to become important later. She writes, “Billey’s tongue has a ragged ballistic effect.” In other words, the pellets damage the tongue and that there’s heavy soot deposition on the tongue. Again, the soot. Reading the report, I remembered a question from Veronica back in episode one.
Veronica: How is there only one hole if he shot himself? He should have had at least two, that was the way it entered and exited.
Al Letson: So where’s the exit wound? I have to be graphic here, so forgive me. We also have autopsy photos, they’re really hard to look at. There’s one of Billey Joe on the exam table. You can see a gaping hole on the left side of his face, about four inches around, and about five inches from the top of his head there are wide lacerations extending up and down from the hole. The first time I saw these pictures, I was shocked because I knew he died of a close range shotgun wound and I thought I’d see more damage. Don’t get me wrong, the wound is devastating, but I was expecting the whole left side of his face would be missing. I’ve read this report over and over again because I wanted to make sure I got it right.
You see, according to Dr. Lewis, when the shotgun went off the pellets grazed the left side of Billey’s head in a glancing blow, so the hole where his ear should be is both the entrance and exit wounds. Then, there’s the diagram, a computer generated picture showing a Black man crouching over, his left hand is near his face, and there’s a red line apparently representing the path of the shot going from the ground to the left side of his head. To be honest, this diagram doesn’t make any sense. If this is how Billey Joe was shot, it seems like the pellet would’ve gone into the left side of his head and out of the right, but that’s not what happened, all the damage is on the left side. I’m not sure who created this diagram, but it has Dr. Lewis’s signature on it. After her testimony to the grand jury, they came away with this conclusion.
Speaker 6: The grand jury unanimously finds that the only plausible and scientific explanation for this incident is that the Sears and Roebuck 12 gauge shotgun accidentally discharged.
Al Letson: Again, that doesn’t make sense to me, and I wasn’t the only one. Billey Joe’s family asked the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to review the case. They conducted a cursory review of the files, summarizing the information. After two years, they completed their review and issued a press release. It stated there was insufficient evidence to charge the officer at the scene, but there was a lot they didn’t say publicly. We got ahold of a DOJ memo summarizing all the information they collected, and what they left out of their press release was one of their main findings. The DOJ believed Dr. Lewis got it wrong. Their pathologist said the shotgun was inside Billey Joe’s mouth, and therefore it must have been a suicide.
A suicide. That’s definitely not what the grand jury found. Look, I’m not an authority when it comes to autopsy reports and police investigations, so we got a team of experts to review the forensic evidence for us.
Dr. Judy Meline…: My name is Dr. Judy Melinek. I’m a Board Certified Forensic Pathologist.
Al Letson: Dr. Melinek is an internationally known expert and has worked on high profile cases like the 9/11 attack. If somebody dies unexpectedly and we just don’t know what it is, do they automatically get an autopsy or is that something the family has to request? How does that work?
Dr. Judy Meline…: The way it works is if someone dies unexpectedly, violently, or under some sort of suspicious circumstances, by law, the coroner or the medical examiner needs to be contacted.
Al Letson: Just kind of an estimate, if you’re dealing with, I don’t know, say 200 cases in a month or whatever…
Dr. Judy Meline…: Not a month, 200 a year.
Al Letson: 200 a year. 200 a year. Forgive me.
Dr. Judy Meline…: Just so you know, on average the National Association of Medical Examiners, which is our professional organization that represents forensic pathologists and coroners throughout the country, estimates that if you do more than 250 autopsies a year, you’re really starting to push the envelope in terms of error rate. The more autopsies you dump on an individual practitioner, the more mistakes they’re going to make.
Al Letson: An additional review by the Department of Justice significantly disagreed with the state’s autopsy findings on the entrance and exit wound. To just put it simply, the feds found something totally different than what the state found in the autopsy. How can these two different pathologists look at the same material and come up with really different conclusions?
Dr. Judy Meline…: It has to do with one’s interpretation of the findings. And so the original pathologist actually did a pretty decent job in describing the injuries and saying where the skull fractures are, where the pellets were recovered from, and even recognized that there was soot on the tongue. The error was in the interpretation that the entrance was at the left ear. What happens is when there is a blast at close range to the head, there’s a lot of fragmentation, the bone gets blasted away, tissue is missing, and even some bone will be missing. But it makes more sense to me as well that given that there’s soot in the oral cavity and on the tongue that that was where the muzzle of the gun was, because that’s where the soot deposition’s going to be.
Al Letson: Based on your review of the evidence, what do you think the most likely scenario is?
Dr. Judy Meline…: Well, I agree with the determination that the cause of death is a shotgun wound to the head. That’s no different in both reports. I think it makes more sense that, given the soot in the tongue and oral cavity, that this muzzle was in the oral cavity in the mouth and that the mouth was probably open at the time that the shot came out.
Al Letson: Three other forensic experts who reviewed the case files also concluded that the gun was in Billey Joe’s mouth. One of them, a former medical examiner, told us it was a fact, not a theory. If the gun was inside his mouth, doesn’t that completely invalidate the grand jury’s findings that Billey Joe accidentally shot himself, since no one accidentally shoots themselves with a gun in their mouth? Either you do it to yourself or someone does it to you.
Why does it matter? It matters because the DA, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations, and the grand jury told the family after looking at all the evidence that they had it all figured out, and they were wrong.
Next, we meet the medical examiner, Adele Lewis.
Dr. Adele Lewis: I guess what you’re asking is if the gun was in his mouth, could it still be called an accident?
Al Letson: Or could it be a homicide?
You’re listening to Reveal.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Before we move on, a warning, we’re going to continue our conversation about how Billey Joe Johnson died, and that includes some graphic details of his autopsy and a conversation about suicide that could be triggering for some listeners. The Department of Justice and some of the top forensic experts in the country had reviewed Billey Joe’s autopsy report. They agreed Dr. Adele Lewis, the original medical examiner, had gotten it wrong. They believed the shotgun had been in Billey Joe’s mouth, opening up the possibility of suicide. His family didn’t buy that, they think he was murdered, but there’s no indication in the case files that investigators ever interviewed them about that or asked what leads they had that would make them believe there was foul play.
We wanted to know what Dr. Lewis had to say. My reporting partner, Jonathan Jones, and I flew to Nashville, Tennessee to see her. It was a chilly winter day, just weeks before we all went on lockdown because of the pandemic. Dr. Lewis is now the Chief Medical Examiner for the state of Tennessee. Her office is small, filled with pictures of her family, work files, and cute little toys. JJ and I make small talk with her for a bit, but then we get down to the reason we’re here. How did you end up working in Mississippi?
Dr. Adele Lewis: We were approached by the Mississippi Department of Public Safety or whoever the medical examiner’s office is under because they were planning to oust a medical examiner that they had had there for a long time who was doing some things that weren’t exactly kosher.
Al Letson: What would you say the average day was like there as far as how many cases you had to see? If you’re coming in on a kind of temporary basis, I’m sure it stacked up.
Dr. Adele Lewis: Yeah. When we were down in Mississippi, we would have at least five or six cases on an average day, it was really busy. Back then, they didn’t have the nice crime lab that they have now, we’d be doing six autopsies, so it was hazard conditions almost.
Al Letson: Wow. We spoke to another medical examiner, her take on doing that many… She’s had to do that many before and she’s like, “That’s just too many. It’s a lot.”
Dr. Adele Lewis: NAME recommends 250 a year.
Al Letson: NAME is the National Association of Medical Examiners, the group we mentioned before.
Dr. Adele Lewis: Not to exceed 325 a year. We were doing a lot more than that, a lot more. They still are in Mississippi, they’re still understaffed.
Al Letson: Do you remember your days in Mississippi besides that, I mean does anything stick out?
Dr. Adele Lewis: Besides doing autopsies like crazy and it being hot? It was interesting to work in the coroner system because that was different from how we have it here in Tennessee where we have an actual physician deciding who gets sent for an autopsy. The coroner position is a little bit more political because it’s elected, so they take into consideration maybe the wishes of their electorate when they’re deciding who to send for an autopsy. That was an interesting take on it for me.
Al Letson: Tennessee and Mississippi handle death investigations differently, and that’s not unusual because there’s no national standards. If you live in one state, certified forensic pathologists might be in charge of investigating deaths. In other states, like Mississippi, it could be someone with little training or experience. When Jonathan reached out to you a while back, he said you remembered the case like it just popped in your head. Why do you remember the Billey Joe Johnson case so well?
Dr. Adele Lewis: Well, when the Billey Joe Johnson case came in, it came in as a young Black kid who had been shot possibly by a white police officer, and so obviously that got my attention.
Al Letson: Yeah. We’re curious if, especially given what you just said, that because it’s a coroner system, there are political things that are happening. Did you hear any of that when it came to Billey Joe Johnson’s case? Did anybody talk to you? Was there any thoughts about exactly what could have happened?
Dr. Adele Lewis: I don’t remember anybody talking to me about that. My job as the medical examiner is just to tell what happened and not who did it, so I try to keep my dog out of that fight as much as possible.
Al Letson: We were wondering if she had ruled out foul play, so JJ asks.
Jonathan Jones: If you had been told that he potentially was a high risk for homicide violence, would that have changed your approach to doing the autopsy?
Dr. Adele Lewis: The minute I heard about him, I knew he was at risk for homicidal violence, being a Black kid pulled over by police who was dating a white girl in Mississippi.
Jonathan Jones: So you were aware he was dating a white girl in Mississippi?
Dr. Adele Lewis: I was.
Jonathan Jones: Can you just walk us through sort of what you would’ve done in this case, like what are the steps you would take in an autopsy when a victim comes to you like this, that sort of thing?
Dr. Adele Lewis: Sure.
I think one thing that we’re interested in, obviously in a case like this, is the range of fire. How close was the weapon to the person when the gun was fired? Initially I characterize this as a contact range entrance wound, but then on closer examination, there really wasn’t any soot in the edges of the wound or burning that would indicate that the gun was right next to his head when it was fired. But the characteristics of the wound were not such that it looked like a distant range wound either, so somewhere close to the head, but within a couple inches probably.
Al Letson: So you’ve heard her refer to the soot and the reason she didn’t think the gun was next to Billey Joe’s head is there’s no soot marks there.
Jonathan Jones: In layman’s terms, do you feel comfortable explaining to us sort of how he may have shot himself?
Dr. Adele Lewis: Now, I wasn’t there and my typical practice is to say if you give me a scenario, I’ll tell you if what I saw was consistent with that. I’m not going to tell you what exact position he was standing in when the gun fired, I’m not going to tell you which hand he was holding it in, I can’t do those things. When someone tells you something like two people’s hands were on this gun when it was fired, that’s crazy talk, you can’t tell that from looking at a wound.
Jonathan Jones: Why did you rule that the manner of death was undetermined?
Dr. Adele Lewis: Normal guns don’t just go off, right? In a normal gun that’s functioning normally, you have to put your finger on the trigger and pull it. Unfortunately, the gun in this case was not tested to see if it would go off when it was dropped or mishandled.
Al Letson: The Mississippi crime lab did start to test the gun, but it broke in the middle of testing.
Dr. Adele Lewis: I don’t know why the gun went off. I can’t tell you why the gun went off, it wasn’t tested. In a case such as that, it’s best for me to call the manner of death undetermined or could not be determined.
Jonathan Jones: Years after, I don’t know whether you were aware of this or anyone contacted you, but the Department of Justice was called in to review the case.
Dr. Adele Lewis: I don’t think I knew that.
Jonathan Jones: They had their Armed Forces Institute of Pathology review the autopsy records in the photos in the case file, and I’ll just show you sort of their section.
Dr. Adele Lewis: Uh oh, this is making me self-conscious to read what someone else thought about what I did.
Jonathan Jones: I mean, essentially they agreed that Johnson died of a shotgun blast to the head, but they said the analysis was wrong in terms of regarding the entrance and exit wound in the path of travel. They said that it was an intra-oral, that the barrel of the gun was inside of his mouth.
Dr. Adele Lewis: No, there is no evidence whatsoever that the barrel of the gun was inside of his mouth. Who wrote this?
Jonathan Jones: This was the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.
Dr. Adele Lewis: Is this a person who’s trained at all in forensic pathology, because it doesn’t seem like it?
Al Letson: JJ explains again that the DOJ had forensic pathologists review the autopsy.
Jonathan Jones: The highlighted section right there, it kind of explains their analysis. Could you read…?
Dr. Adele Lewis: Sure. It says they disagreed significantly regarding the entrance site, exit site, and path of travel, and determined that it was an intra-oral shotgun wound to the head, meaning that the muzzle of the gun was in his mouth, and that the manner of death should have been a suicide. Heavy deposition and injuries to the tongue indicate that the muzzle of the weapon was located in the mouth when the shotgun was actually fired. Yeah, I disagree with that.
Al Letson: The DOJ report says the soot on Billey Joe’s tongue is one reason why they think the gun was inside his mouth. We sit in Dr. Lewis’s office in silence while she looks through the DOJs findings.
Dr. Adele Lewis: This did not have the typical appearance of an intra-oral shotgun wound at all, and I have autopsied several of those. I don’t agree with their interpretation.
Jonathan Jones: We were trying to figure out why this discrepancy, like how could two different pathologists look at the same thing and come up with completely different conclusions?
Dr. Adele Lewis: Sure. Go ahead.
Al Letson: We should say that you actually saw the body.
Dr. Adele Lewis: Right.
Al Letson: They did not.
Dr. Adele Lewis: Correct.
Al Letson: They are basically doing a paper review.
Jonathan Jones: Yeah, and they’re looking at the photography.
Dr. Adele Lewis: So they’re looking at the photographs and the x-rays and all of that.
Jonathan Jones: I think that, if my understanding of reading that, is sort of the soot on the tongue made them think that it was an intra-oral. In any case, we reached out to a bunch of different pathologists like Judy Melinek in San Francisco and James Lauridson in Alabama, and they kind of all came to the conclusion that the most likely scenario was the DOJs.
Dr. Adele Lewis: Really?
Jonathan Jones: That it was an intra-oral shotgun and that the barrel was inside of the… I believe Dr. Lauridson said it was a fact, not a theory.
Dr. Adele Lewis: Okay.
Jonathan Jones: I just wonder what you make of that. Does that at all make you reconsider your findings?
Dr. Adele Lewis: I’d be happy to go back and reconsider it and look at the photographs again and reconsider it that way, sure. The case is never closed.
Al Letson: Dr. Lewis didn’t elaborate on why she disagreed with the independent pathologist main claim that the gun was in Billey Joe’s mouth because of those soot marks and that the hole in his head was an exit wound, not the entrance wound like she thought.
Jonathan Jones: You testified in the grand jury?
Dr. Adele Lewis: I did.
Jonathan Jones: And you basically testified to sort of what you just said here?
Dr. Adele Lewis: Yes.
Jonathan Jones: And they ruled ultimately that it was an accidental shooting, that for some reason he was reaching for the gun, it accidentally discharged and it went off. If the barrel was inside of his mouth, how does that square with the idea of accidental?
Dr. Adele Lewis: It doesn’t. If the barrel was in his mouth, it’s a suicide. If the barrel was in his mouth and he intentionally fired the weapon, it was a suicide.
Jonathan Jones: Then, does that then negate the grand jury’s findings that it was…?
Dr. Adele Lewis: Well, the manner of death is a medical opinion. I guess what you’re asking is if the gun was in his mouth, could it still be called an accident?
Al Letson: Or could it be a homicide?
Dr. Adele Lewis: It could be a homicide if someone else fired the gun while the barrel was in his mouth. It’s quite unusual to have an unimpaired adult die of a homicidal intra-oral gunshot wound or a shotgun wound. It’s possible. It’s possible.
Al Letson: We had one more significant question about Dr. Lewis’s work, the diagram.
Jonathan Jones: My impression is that the DA presented this to the grand jury.
Dr. Adele Lewis: I don’t have a memory of having seen this before, but my signature’s on it.
Jonathan Jones: Oh, that is your signature. I thought maybe that says Adele.
Dr. Adele Lewis: This is not something I’m capable of generating, so I assume the DA generated it.
Jonathan Jones: Is it safe to say that maybe… I mean obviously this graphic representation based on the autopsy findings would’ve influenced the grand jury a lot in terms of determining that it was an accidental death.
Dr. Adele Lewis: I think this diagram could have influenced them to say it was an accidental death, specifically with my testimony that the entrance wound was on the left side of the head.
Al Letson: You used the term, I’m sorry, it was like a glancing blow.
Dr. Adele Lewis: Like a tangential wound.
Al Letson: A tangential, thank you. The angle is off for this to be a tangential one, isn’t it? This basically looks like it’s going directly into a skull and so therefore the buckshot would travel through… Well, buckshot kind of goes wherever, but.
Dr. Adele Lewis: Well, in this two-dimensional drawing, I mean the gun could be angled upward towards us, so I can’t… I don’t know. I don’t know.
Jonathan Jones: Would you discuss with either the DA or the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations the possibility of foul play? Did you rule out the possibility of foul play in this case?
Dr. Adele Lewis: No. Let me think about how I want to answer this question.
I’m sure we had conversations about what could have happened. Again, my role is to look at the injuries and to say what it could have been or what it couldn’t have been. There are an infinite number of possibilities of things that this could have been.
Jonathan Jones: I’m just wondering whether you think that this case would be worthy of being reopened or re-investigated considering the different conclusions on the autopsy, manner of death, these sort of issues that I’ve just raised for you?
Dr. Adele Lewis: Reopening the case 11 years later, I don’t know if you would be able to come to different conclusions or not. My conversation with you makes me even more glad that I called this the manner undetermined because I think you’re bringing up even more questions.
Al Letson: Here’s an important point. In her autopsy report, under cause of death, Dr. Lewis determined it was a shotgun wound. Under manner of death, she wrote undetermined, never saying whether it was an accident, suicide, or homicide.
Jonathan Jones: Does it matter whether it was an accidental or suicide? Is it important to get that correct?
Dr. Adele Lewis: Yeah, I think it’s important to get it correct whether it was an accident or suicide. I know it’s important to the family who doesn’t think it’s possible that he could have committed suicide, and it’s always important to the families in cases like that.
Jonathan Jones: If the autopsy entrance wound, exit wound sort of conclusions were incorrect and that influenced the grand jury to rule it as accidental, what are the implications for the community that sort of was so distrustful about that justice was served in this case? I mean, what are the implications when…?
Dr. Adele Lewis: So what would the implication have been if I had called it a suicide? I think we would still be here today having this interview because I think that that would not have been accepted by that community, especially in light of everything that’s occurred afterwards. With that said, that’s not a reason for me to not call it a suicide. If I thought it was, I would’ve called it that.
Al Letson: If Dr. Lewis was wrong about the gunshot wound, and based on our experts at the DOJ, that seems a real possibility, then that brings into question the grand jury’s conclusion that it was an accidental shooting, which would leave only two possible scenarios; either Billey Joe Johnson intentionally killed himself or he was murdered. Knowing how he died matters. If he was my family member, I would want to know. If he was yours, you would want to know.
When I started talking about this case 10 years ago, most of the Black people and people of color, I told about it immediately understood why I needed to look into it. But with white people, the response was different, many understood and wanted to know more, but some shrugged off the idea and said it wasn’t 1955, and some dismissed it outright saying something racist may have happened in Mississippi, so what? What’s the big deal? It happens all the time. I’ll be honest, I have a hard time understanding those ways of thinking given this country’s history, but I’m not surprised. I mean, Americans engage in an active form of collective amnesia every day. Sometimes, to fight against it, the only thing we can do is bear witness.
To that end, JJ and I decided to take a road trip after talking to Dr. Lewis, we headed to Montgomery, Alabama, home to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a place that’s dedicated to the victims of lynching. I want to be clear, we didn’t go because we thought Billey Joe was lynched. Honestly, we don’t know what happened. We went because it’s a place to remember the people who died, but also never forget how they died and the system that didn’t protect them. I didn’t record in the museum, this was an impromptu visit, you have to have advanced permission to do that, but I’m actually glad I didn’t because the minute I walked past security, I felt like I was on holy ground.
I’m sorry, I’m the son of a Baptist minister and my brain just frames things that way. The courtyard is filled with green grass, statues all around made of Black metal, walls engraved with stories on them. Because it’s open air, you feel free, unlike any museum I’ve been in, but the statues that depict slavery are a constant reminder that the freedom I was feeling is so delicate. I could have spent hours just walking the pavilion, but there’s a structure in the main exhibit that has its own gravity. I followed the paved pathway that leads to it. There are no walls, just a roof and what looks like columns. When you get closer, you see the columns are suspended from the roof to the wood deck floor. The monoliths are rust-colored metal rectangles, engraved on each are state, county, and the names of people.
Speaker 7: Clay County, Mississippi, William Gates.
Al Letson: People who’ve been lynched/
Speaker 7: John Williamson.
Milt Calvert.
Al Letson: I knew I was going to see a lot of names, but…
Speaker 7: Cleveland [inaudible].
Al Letson: But when you look out across the structure, you realize how big it is.
Speaker 7: Winston County, Mississippi.
Al Letson: It’s breathtaking.
Speaker 7: Eli Bryant. Lewis Hodge.
Al Letson: I couldn’t count the columns, it’s that many.
Speaker 7: Daniel McDonald. William Carter. [inaudible] Attala County, Mississippi.
Al Letson: As you walk through, the memorial goes deeper into the ground.
Speaker 7: Daniel [inaudible].
Al Letson: Walls gradually rise up around you. The metal monoliths, filled with the names of the dead, are soon over your head. It is an awesome and heavy feeling as their names rise to the heavens and you go deeper into the earth.
Speaker 7: George County, Mississippi. Unknown.
Al Letson: As the light from outside peaked in, I just sat and tried to absorb it, tried to wrap my head around the story of it. It’s not just the story of Black America, but of America.
Speaker 7: Clairborne County, Mississippi.
Al Letson: The people who were lost.
Speaker 7: William Smith.
Al Letson: The justice that wasn’t served.
Speaker 7: Amos [inaudible]. William Wilson.
Al Letson: We like to think about these things like they are so far away, but for many of us, it lives with us, right now.
Speaker 7: Clark County, Mississippi. Aaron Harris.
Al Letson: [inaudible] says that my great-grandfather might’ve been lynched and it wasn’t in Mississippi. If it happened, it was probably in New Jersey.
Speaker 7: Adams County, Mississippi. Washington [inaudible] .
Al Letson: This is the context.
Speaker 7: Spencer Collins.
Al Letson: At the top of this episode, we told you about Reverend Lee who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. When I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Reverend Lee’s name was not added because the memorial honored victims of racial violence from 1875 to 1950. Since my visit, Reverend Lee’s name has been added to a new monument across the street that recognizes victims up through 1959. What I take away from that is that all of these names and places that have been gathered there is that it may never be complete. There are more victims, some that we may never know about.
On the next episode, we track down a key figure in this story.
Joel Wallace: This is Special Agent Joel Wallace in the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations.
Al Letson: The man who led the investigation into Billey Joe’s death.
Joel Wallace: I know Al already, August 8th, 1972.
Al Letson: There you go, you got me.
Joel Wallace: Good. Nice to meet you. Now, you the guy that called my wife’s phone.
Jonathan Jones: I did text it.
Joel Wallace: I’m going to tell you, you almost got yourself, I’m serious, in a real bad situation. Man, I’m not trying to be funny.
Al Letson: At first, he’s confident they did a thorough investigation and got it right.
Joel Wallace: It gives me some kind of confidence that the people or some people had confidence in my job performance.
Al Letson: But as JJ and I raised more questions…
Jonathan Jones: Were you able to verify that the chase that Officer Sullivan said, he’s going down Highway 26…?
Al Letson: Why, in this case, were you assigned to other people to work with you?
You weren’t a part of the DOJ investigation, but what the DOJ investigation came back with is that he put the gun in his mouth and he shot himself that way. He begins to have his doubts.
Joel Wallace: If somebody had told me that, I would’ve marched right to Tony Lawrence’s office, the District Attorney, and would’ve said, “Hey, we need to reopen this case. We need to look at this.”
Al Letson: That’s next time on Reveal.
Today’s show addressed issues of suicide. If you’re having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Again, just call or text 988 for help. If you’ve missed the first couple episodes of this series, you can listen to them on our podcast. While you’re there, be sure to leave us a review. It really helps spread the word.
Our show was reported and produced by Jonathan Jones and me, and edited by Kevin Sullivan. Michael I Schiller is the series producer. Steven Rascon is the assistant producer. Alaa Mostafa, the production manager, and Nina Martin, the digital editor for the series. We had additional reporting and producing help from Ko Bragg, Melissa Lewis, Michael Montgomery, and Laurel Hennen Vigil. Thanks to Reveal’s Katharine Mieszkowski, and thanks to former Revealers, Jen Chien, who helped launch the project, Esther Kaplan, Christa Scharfenberg, Sumi Aggarwal and Sarah Mirk. Special thanks to Alexis Hightower for reading the names of the lynching victims at the Memorial for Peace and Justice. Mama Blue sang our theme song, which was written and composed by Nina Simone. Thanks to her estate and music and strategy. We got news and sports footage of Billey Joe, courtesy of Gray Media Group and WLOX TV. Our fact-checker is Rosemarie Ho.
Victoria Baranetsky is our general counsel. Our production managers are the Wonder Twins, Zulema Cobb, and Steven, my brother from another mother, Rascon. Original score and sound design by the Dynamic Duo, Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, Arruda. They had help from Claire [inaudible] Mullen, Najib Aminy, Brett Simpson, and Ameeta Ganatra. Our CEO is Robert Rosenthal. Our COO is Maria Feldman. Our interim executive producers are Brett Myers and Taki Telonidis. Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Park Foundation, and the Helman Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson, and remember there is always more to the story.

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