Months after the release of “The Fatal Tunnel,” I received a tip from an unlikely source: my five-year-old son.
He talked about the phases of the moon. Like many children his age, he is obsessed with the whole moon. Like many parents, my mind was somewhere else.
“It’s a waning crescent moon!” he declared one day to which I replied “uh-huh.”
“It’s a growing gibbous!” he declared another day to which I replied “mm-hmm.”
Then it came to me.
I was wondering how bright the moon was on December 12, 2019 in St. Louis. Louis. It was the night a decorated police officer fired eight shots and hit 24-year-old Cortez Bufford at least five times after chasing him down a coal-black walkway between two homes – the fatal tunnel.
“Look, when we get to the mouth of the alley, he will run,” Bufford’s killer, Officer Lucas Roethlisberger, told his partner before leaving their police case Chevy Tahoe, according to Officer Martinous Walls’ interview with investigators. Roethlisberger confronted Bufford outside a BP in southern St. Louis. Louis’ Carondelet neighborhood because it looked like he was peeing next to the gas station, officers said.
His prediction was right. Bufford ran. But if Bufford, who had been beaten and beaten by St. Louis police five years earlier, ran because he was afraid of another violent encounter, his prediction was also true. Video footage outside BP shows Roethlisberger pulling his gun almost instantly. When Bufford fled, he and Tahoe collided. Bufford fell to the ground, rose again, and continued to run northwest on Bates Street into the neighborhood. He swung into a yard and tried to clear a fence in one of the walkways, but was unsuccessful. He quarreled with the officer, scratched him, and then ran across the street. The officer followed. Bufford’s life ended in the black hole in the gangway.
“How was your vision in it?” an investigator later asked Roethlisberger.
“I could see,” he replied about a month after the shooting. What the officer could see, he claimed, was Bufford, who pulled a gun from his crossbody bag and aimed it at him, causing him to fear for his life.
Under the Fourth Amendment, this “reasonable fear” could allow law enforcement agencies to kill, the courts have ruled time and time again.
This would be negative for the Bufford case unless there was a way to reject Roethlisberger’s report. Yet no one else reportedly saw what happened. And the only other person present – Buford – is dead.
But what if an officer creates the situation that puts him in fear for his life? Could he really have seen what he said he saw? What was the visibility? Is there any way to know?
New ways to know
A burgeoning form of investigative reporting, “forensic journalism,” has been taught outside the United States for years. In Cyprus, it is offered as a “New Media” module at Eastern Mediterranean University. In India, trained forensic journalists, provided they are neutral and fact-based, can provide evidence directly to law enforcement and the courts.
A pioneer in this area is the British citizen journalist Eliot Higgins and his Bellingcat website, which has investigated the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines flight and Russia’s involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Also in the United States, journalists are increasingly using forensic methods to challenge official tales. Newsrooms are adding forensic teams to their mix. New York Timesfor example, calls its unit the “Visual Investigations Team.” In 2019, Nieman Lab, a journalistic think tank at Harvard University, predicted that forensic reporting would become critical “in an era where impunity is a rising norm and human rights appear to be falling into disfavor.”
To push the boundaries of this evolving field, my colleague at the investigative journalistic organization Invisible Institute pushed Jamie Kalven – who first revealed the truth behind the case of Laquan McDonald, the Chicago teenager, who the now convicted officer Jason Van Dyke shot sixteen times in 2014 – and the UK-based human rights organization Forensic Architecture presented a years-long study at the Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2019. Using new forensic techniques and on-site reporting, they reconstructed police fatalities on Harith Augustus, a local barber, in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood. Their investigation challenged the police report that the shooting was justified, and investigated the aggressive police that caused Augustus’ death. In doing so, they expanded the scope of human rights reporting and expanded what is known.
It was in that spirit, after publishing a nearly 8,000 word long story about Bufford’s death last May, that I knew there was more to know. It’s always there. And it bothered me that the public might never find out what really happened when the awareness of Bufford’s case fades and a host of others gather dust at St. Louis Circuit Attorney’s Office – in the US city with the highest frequency of police killings in the country.
So with pro bono help and guidance from a forensic expert, I followed up on the story and undertook to test the official narrative of the incident.