Deputy Commissioner Jerry Rodriguez said Monday that 25-year-old Freddie Gray died of "a very tragic injury to his spinal cord," the bundle of nerves that carries messages between the brain and the rest of the body. Gray died Sunday, one week after his arrest in West Baltimore.
Details about Gray's injury and what caused it remain unknown. Police did not release results of an autopsy conducted Monday.
Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts said investigators were searching for any evidence of abuse by officers or other trauma that might have occurred during a 30-minute ride in a police van. Gray was angry and having difficulty walking when placed in the van and then unable to talk or breathe when he was removed, Rodriguez said.
Gray's family has said he underwent surgery at Maryland Shock Trauma Center for three fractured neck vertebrae and a crushed voice box — injuries doctors said are more common among the elderly or victims of high-speed crashes.
Medical experts said it takes powerful blunt force, and often damage to the vertebrae that surround the spinal cord, to tear or sever it.
When the body undergoes trauma such as a car accident, the intense forces on the body can shift the vertebrae out of place. And if they move too far out of alignment with one another, they can tear or sever the spinal cord, Newman said. In many cases, spinal cord tears can cause paralysis even though the vertebral column may bounce back into place undamaged, he said.
In other cases, hyper-extension of the neck either forward or backward can cause vertebrae to fracture, crushing the spinal cord.
While injuries to lower portions of the spinal column can often lead to some degree of paralysis, trauma to the neck can have the most serious consequences, including quadriplegia, the need for a ventilator to breathe, or death as a result of an inability to breathe.
Spinal cord injuries also can lead to what is known as spinal shock, when the nervous system is overcome by the injury and unable to maintain control of blood pressure or oxygenation of vital organs, Dr. Ali Bydon said.