One week has passed since the death of prominent Birmingham attorney Major Bashinsky was ruled a suicide.
In that time, the only substantive information available to the general public about the suicide finding came from an article in last Thursday's Birmingham News.
According to the article, the 63-year-old Bashinsky waded into a pond at the Highland Park Golf Course, mouth and hands loosely bound, and shot himself in the side of the head. "All of our evidence supports that," Jefferson County Chief Deputy Coroner Pat Curry said.
But when you read the article closely, how much evidence is presented that clearly points to suicide? Answer: Zero.
The article, written by Carol Robinson, is a classic case of "trust me" journalism. The reporter presents a case that Bashinsky committed suicide, but we see no sign that she examined any documents or asked any tough questions of public officials. (Note: Robinson has the reputation of being one of the News' better reporters. It's possible her piece was highly edited and sanitized by higher-ups at the paper. It's also possible that Robinson knew it would be good for her job standing at the paper to write a weak story and not ask any questions.)
The final version of the News' coverage is not available online. But you can read the article in its entirety at the bottom of this post.
First, let's consider what the article does not include:
* No quotes from either Dr. Robert Brissie or Dr. Gary Simmons, of the Jefferson County Coroner/Medical Examiner's Office. The quotes come from Pat Curry, who is a former sheriff's deputy. Brissie and Simmons are pathologists, but the story includes no quotes from them. (Note: Both Brissie and Simmons serve on the Department of Pathology faculty at the University of Alabama at Birmingham [UAB]. They work under the umbrella of the University of Alabama Board of Trustees, whose ex oficio president is Governor Bob Riley. Jefferson County District Attorney Brandon Falls, who almost certainly played a hand in the investigation, is a Riley appointee.)
* No reference to a medical examiner's report, signed by Brissie or Simmons.
* No reference to an autopsy.
* No reference to a toxicology report.
* No reference to scientific information of any kind that points to cause of death--homicide, suicide, accident, what have you.
Now, let's consider what the article does say:
* Authorities say they believe Bashinsky died March 3, the day he disappeared from his Mountain Brook office.
Why do authorities believe this? The story does not say. Shouldn't a scientific examination of the body be able to provide an estimate regarding time of death? Why isn't this information presented?
* Authorities say Bashinsky went into a Southside coffee shop and bought coffee and then went to a nearby hardware store to purchase rope and duct tape.
Why do authorities believe this? The article says officials presented a blurry photo from a security camera, but a clerk at the hardware store could not identify the man as Bashinsky. Clear photos of Bashinsky, which appear to be of recent vintage, are available all over the Web. Why were those photos not used for possible ID. The story does not say. Robinson, to her credit, did interview the clerk at the hardware store. But she did not report his name or the name of the hardware store. Why? (It almost has to be Five Points South Hardware, which is the only hardware store in the area. The store, by the way, is a true Birmingham gem, and any hardware junkie should pay a visit when in our fair city. A brief piece by Glynn Wilson at Locust Fork News and Journal gives a feel for the store's classic flavor.)
* Authorities say Bashinsky loosely bound his hands and feet and stuck a label from a Golden Flake bag in the roof of his mouth.
How do authorities know that Bashinsky did all of this himself? What scientific evidence supports this? The story does not say. The story does say there was no sign of struggle against the tape or rope. But what if Bashinsky had been drugged or poisoned already? Did a toxicology screen check for that possibility?
* Authorities say Bashinsky walked into the golf-course pond and shot himself.
What scientific evidence points to this? Was there one set of footprints leading into the pond? Were any other footprints present? Did any footprints match the shoes that Bashinsky was wearing? An adult male wading into a marshy area probably would leave a deep impression on the soft bottom of the pond. Was such an impression present at the scene? The article addresses none of these questions.
* Authorities say a computer flash drive, containing drafts of a letter that had been sent to Golden Enterprises prior to his disappearance, was found in Bashinsky's car.
How do authorities know that the flash drive wasn't planted in Bashinsky's car by someone else? Even if the flash drive belonged to Bashinsky, does its presence prove he wrote the letter? I'm not a computer geek, but my understanding is that a USB flash drive is essentially a new form of floppy disk, a device for storing digital information and moving it from one place to another. To my knowledge, it says nothing about how the material originated. For example, it has been reported that members of the Bashinsky family received copies of the letter. If Major Bashinsky received a copy, couldn't he have scanned it and kept a copy in the flash drive? Did authorities check any computers that Major Bashinsky was known to use to see if there are signs that he actually wrote the letter? The story does not address these questions.
* Authorities found a gun, with the serial number buffed off, that they believe was used. And they found an unfired cartridge in Bashinsky's car that they believe will match the gun.
Well, did the unfired cartridge match the gun? The News has done no followup reporting on this story--and we aren't holding our breath waiting for any. Was there any scientific evidence regarding the gun or the body that proves Bashinsky fired the gun into his own head? The story does not say. And why would Major Bashinsky have a gun with the serial number buffed off? Sounds like just the item an estate attorney would keep in his possession.
* Authorities say a second dive, last Wednesday morning, turned up a roll of duct tape, scissors, and a set of Toyota car keys.
Do the car keys match Bashinsky's vehicle? Is there any evidence that the duct tape and scissors came from the hardware store where Bashinsky supposedly bought them? Could scientific tests determine how long these objects had been in the pond? It sounds like these objects were found rather quickly on the second dive. Why were they not found on the first dive? The story addresses none of these questions.
* Authorities say the fired cartridge, from the fatal shot, has not been found.
Well, has it been found one week later? Again, no followup reporting on this story. If that cartridge is not found in the pond, isn't it pretty hard to say conclusively that Major Bashinsky was shot in the pond--much less that he shot himself in the pond?
Speaking of the press, reporting on this story has been curious. The News posted its early version of the story about the suicide finding at 9:40 a.m. last Wednesday on al.com, the paper's Web affiliate. It appears that other media outlets pretty much picked up on the al.com piece and did virtually no original reporting. I've seen no signs that a press conference was conducted early last Wednesday morning. My check of Web sites for local television affiliates turned up no stories that included on-camera interviews with any officials who helped make the suicide finding.
In short, the Alabama press apparently asked few, if any, questions last Wednesday. And we've seen no signs that any questions have been asked since then.
Is it possible that Major Bashinsky did commit suicide? Sure it is. His brother, Sloan Y. Bashinsky Jr., has written on his blog that he accepts the suicide finding, saying that his brother was deeply troubled and conflicted on several fronts.
But based on information that is available to the public so far, is there any evidence that actually proves Major Bashinsky killed himself with a gunshot to the head?
The answer is no, not even close.
Public officials, and the mainstream press, seem to be sending this message: "Trust us. We got it right."
Well folks, we don't trust you. And we see plenty of reasons to think you didn't get it right.