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4 takeaways | Medical examiner shares gruesome autopsy details during Ahmaud Arbery death trial

Dr. Edmund Donoghue with GBI stood firm in his responses to both the defense and prosecution.

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — After a contentious start to Tuesday’s proceedings in the death of Ahmaud Arbery trial, the jury was finally allowed into the courtroom as prosecutors called Georgia Bureau of Investigation medical examiner Dr. Edmund Donoghue to the stand.

Donoghue performed the autopsy a day following Arbery’s death. His family said he died while going for a jog in the Satilla Shores neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia on Feb. 23, 2020. Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan, who recorded the video, are all facing murder charges in Arbery’s death.

Donoghue is a forensic and anatomic pathologist and has worked for GBI since 2007. 

He testified on the witness stand for about an hour providing insight on Arbery’s autopsy photos that were shown to the jurors. The medical examiner performed his autopsy report before video of Arbery’s death was widely spread on social media; he determined the cause of death without analysis of the additional video.

During testimony, Donoghue also provided his opinion and expertise on the autopsy results in concert with video views and frame-by-frame stills from the film recorded by Bryan.

Here are notable takeaways from the medical examiner’s testimony:

1. Three shots fired, two were fatal

Arbery was shot at three times by a shotgun, according to the GBI autopsy report. Donoghue said the 25-year-old suffered a gunshot wound to his right wrist, which tore through an artery and the center of his chest.

“It would bleed profusely,” the medical examiner said about the wrist wound. “Blood under pressure would spurt from this wound.”

Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski showed crime scene evidence from the blood spurts with Donoghue confirming later during his testimony that the severity of Arbery's wounds were consistent with arterial bleeding.

The medical examiner added the second shot missed, but the third struck near Arbery’s left armpit.

“This could have caused his death,” Donoghue said, explaining that an artery and key veins were involved in the injury. The forensics expert added the first shot alone would have been fatal.

The autopsy report determined Arbery’s cause of death was from multiple gunshot wounds.

2. Third shot paralyzed Arbery’s arm

Donoghue said the 25-year-old’s left arm suffered an injury that paralyzed it.

“He developed a very distinctive injury called erb’s palsey,” Donoghue said. “It has a very specific sign, the forearm is rotated immediately and the hand goes up like this in what is known as the ‘waiter’s tip’ position.”

The medical examiner said this happened after the third shot when Arbery likely experienced blunt force to several nerves by his left shoulder.

“He’s paralyzed now -- can’t use that arm,” Donoghue said pointing to autopsy photos.

The defense challenged this statement during cross-examination, asking Donoghue if Arbery’s wrist could have been wounded as he tried to swipe the gun during the altercation with Travis McMichael.

“No,” Donoghue said with confidence.

However, Donoghue said Arbery could have landed punches. But as a part of the autopsy, he didn't investigate how many times Arbery may have punched McMichael. 

3. Arbery struggled to breathe in the last moments of his life

Credit: AP
Dr. Edmund R. Donoghue, right, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Forensic Pathology Specialist, examines shotgun pellets entered into evidence during the trial of Greg McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, and a neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan in the Glynn County Courthouse, Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga. The three are charged with the February 2020 slaying of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, Pool)

Several shotgun pellets passed through Arbery’s chest, according to autopsy photographs shown during the trial.

The pellets broke several of Arbery’s ribs and pierced his lower lungs, the medical examiner said during witness questioning. Parts of Arbery’s back shoulder were also fractured.

“The heart’s still beating,” Donoghue clarified for the jury.

However, those injuries and Arbery profusely bleeding likely made it difficult for the 25-year-old to breathe during the altercation, the medical examiner said.

4. Officers couldn’t save Arbery

Due to the fatal gunshot wounds, Donoghue said little could be done to save Arbery – and chances grew slimmer by the time officers arrived at the scene.

“Is there anything law enforcement or EMS could have done to save his life at the scene?" Dunikoski asked the medical examiner.

“No,” Donoghue said.

The medical examiner said earlier during his testimony that Arbery's wrist needed a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. It was one of Arbery's first injuries, with the final abrasions happening as the man fell on his face, unable to even put his hands up to protect his fall. 

As defense attorneys cross-examined Donoghue, they continued to question whether the medical examiner changed his opinion or altered his reports after seeing the video of Arbery’s last moments.

“You testified that nothing could be done on scene that could save Mr. Arbery’s life, is that correct?” the defense asked the medical examiner.

“That is correct,” Donoghue said.

“The phrase you used when you talked to us in March is ‘(he) was essentially dead before he hit the ground,” the defense said.

“Yes,” Donoghue responded.