Freddie Gray: Do two Washington Post reports connect the dots about what really happened to him? *UPDATED*

Lead Poisoning

[UPDATE:  Freddie Gray’s death has been ruled a homicide.  I don’t think it changes the questions I ask below or the information I offer.  It simply means that, whether Gray’s death was purely accidental or the result of self-inflicted behavior, gross negligence, or homicide, he might have been more vulnerable than the next guy.]

Reading the news, it occurred to me that there’s a distinct possibility that it wasn’t police brutality that felled the very pathetic Freddie Gray.  It may have been Freddie’s own brutality against himself, coupled with the effects of an appalling start in life, that led to his dying from a broken spine.

My theory starts with a headline in the Washington Post: “Freddie Gray’s life a study in the sad effects of lead paint on poor blacks.” The report paints a tragic story of African-Americans living in ancient, run-down houses with floors that are routinely covered in lead-filled paint chips. Anyone who has had small children knows that, if there are paint chips on the floor, any baby or toddler will eat them. Even if there aren’t chips but are, instead, small particles, it’s self-evident that the children will eventually ingest some.

It’s therefore no surprise to learn that Gray was riddled with lead, something that came to light when his family filed suit for lead poisoning:

Freddie Gray’s path toward such litigation began months after his birth in August of 1989. He and his twin sister, Fredericka, were born two months prematurely to a mother, Gloria Darden, who said in a deposition she began using heroin when she was 23. He lived in the hospital his first months of life until he gained five pounds.

It wasn’t long after that he was given the first of many blood tests, court records show. The test came in May of 1990, when the family was living in a home on Fulton Avenue in West Baltimore. Even at such a young age, his blood contained more than 10 micrograms of lead per decileter of blood — double the level in which the Center for Disease Control urges additional testing. Three months later, his blood had nearly 30 micrograms. And then, in June of 1991 when Gray was 22 months old, his blood carried 37 micrograms.

The Washington Post story focuses on the cognitive effects of lead poisoning on children, and those effects are indeed terrible:

“Jesus,” gasped Dan Levy, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University who has studied the effects of lead poisoning on youths, when told of Gray’s levels. “The fact that Mr. Gray had these high levels of lead in all likelihood affected his ability to think and to self-regulate, and profoundly affect his cognitive ability to process information.” He added: “And the real tragedy of lead is that the damage it does is irreparable.”

Chronic lead poisoning certainly goes a long way to explaining how so many underclass children do not thrive in school, engage in uncontrolled violence, and make poor moral choices. But my thoughts actually went a different way when I realized that Gray was the underweight, premature baby of a heroin addict, who was then exposed to toxic levels of lead during his early childhood. The question I asked myself was whether those two things could affect Gray’s bone development.

A little research revealed that there’s a very strong connection between lead poisoning and people’s bones: “Lead is predominantly stored in the human body in calcified tissues; 90-95% of the total lead burden is contained within bone in non-occupationally exposed adults.” The lead, of course, doesn’t just sit in those bones in an idle, benign fashion. Among other things, it turns out that high exposures to lead weaken bones:

For decades, scientists have known that the human skeleton is a repository for lead in people who were exposed to high levels of this environmental toxin in their childhood, but thought this storage to be benign. Recently, a growing body of research is showing that the opposite is true, and that lead in bone actually sets off a bizarre chain reaction, first accelerating bone growth, and then eventually limiting it so that a high peak bone mass is not achieved. Preventing a high peak bone mass will predispose a young person to osteoporosis later in life.


“As a child, lead appears to accelerate bone development and maturation, so that lead-exposed children actually have a higher bone density than those not exposed to environmental lead,” said James Campbell, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor of Pediatrics and a co-investigator of the study. “But, we believe this higher bone density effect is short-lived, and in fact, we believe it actually prevents these children from achieving an optimal peak bone mass later on in life.”

J. Edward Puzas, Ph.D., professor of Orthopaedics and director of the overall project, added that limiting peak bone mass has dire consequences as a person begins to age.

“When everyone begins to lose bone mass starting at around age 50, lead-exposed individuals are at a higher risk for bone fractures and osteoporosis – and probably at an earlier age than the typical osteoporosis patient.”

Considering Gray’s extremely high exposure to lead, it seems reasonable to believe that, even at age 25, he may already have become at “higher risk for bone fractures….”

As for his mother’s heroin addiction, although I couldn’t find anything direct connection between heroin during the Mom’s pregnancy and poor bone development on the fetus, we do know that “the use of heroin can lead to poor fetal growth, [and] premature delivery….” It strikes me as reasonable to believe that this poor fetal growth and premature delivery can be tied to later problems with the child’s skeletal system.

I’d also imagine that a pregnant woman using heroin isn’t paying much attention to prenatal nutrition — and we do know that malnutrition can have serious effects on a child’s skeletal development (emphasis mine):

The effects of malnutrition vary, based on when it occurs during pregnancy. It can have long-lasting results that affect the quality of your baby’s life into adulthood. Malnutrition during pregnancy increases your baby’s risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, obesity, breast cancer, chronic kidney failure, infectious diseases, psychiatric disorders and organ dysfunction. In childhood, poor development due to malnutrition can lead to poor performance in school.

All of this data about Gray’s dreadful childhood — his exposure in utero to heroin and malnutrition, and his exposure as a child to toxic amounts of led — popped into my mind when I read another story that the Washington Post published about Gray stating that he may have been intent upon injuring himself as a way of avoiding arrest:

A prisoner sharing a police transport van with Freddie Gray told investigators that he could hear Gray “banging against the walls” of the vehicle and believed that he “was intentionally trying to injure himself,” according to a police document obtained by The Washington Post.

Reading that, it occurred to me that, given Gray’s premature birth, his heroin addicted mother, and his extreme lead poisoning, his slamming himself up against walls — whether because he was in the grip of an uncontrolled fury or because he was hoping for a hospital visit, not a jail visit — resulted in him fracturing his own possibly congenitally-weakened spine.

One of the first things you learn as a law student is that people having different breaking points. The reason you learn this is summed up in the phrase “the man with the glass jaw.” Imagine that you go out for a couple of beers on a Friday night. While you’re at the bar, an obnoxious guy keeps verbally hitting on your girlfriend. With your inhibitions a little lowered, when he says “Hey, baby!” once too often, you throw a mild roundhouse at him, bopping him on the jaw.

Everyone in the bar is able and willing to testify honestly that your punch had no power; it was scarcely more than a love tap. Nevertheless, the guy goes down like a felled ox, and ends up in the ER with a shattered jaw.

When he sues you, your obvious defense will be “But I barely touched him!” The reality is, though, that this is no defense at all. You punched him, and once you took that first tortious step, you became responsible for the damages flowing from it. If the target of your punch had a glass jaw . . . tough luck. You take your victims as they come.

(By the way, the same principle operates when you rear-end another car. If you lightly rear-end a battered 1970s Ford, denting the bumper, you probably can pay for the damage out-of-pocket, without implicating your insurance company. On the other hand, if you equally lightly rear-end a brand new Jaguar, expect your insurance rates to go up.)

With Freddie Gray slamming himself around the van, he might have been both the tortfeasor and the victim with the glass jaw. It certainly seems possible that he meted out a violent assault against himself with entirely unexpected results due to his problematic childhood health history.