Fact check: False claims of organ harvesting, mutilation in death of Illinois student Jelani Day

·5 min read

The claim: Jelani Day's body was missing organs, bones when found

Police haven’t released the cause of death for Jelani Day, an Illinois State University student whose case gained national attention in September.

However, his mother felt compelled to state he had not been a victim of "organ harvesting" in response to posts shared tens of thousands of times on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The posts variously claimed that Day was found with no brain, "no eyeballs, no face, no scalp," a sawed-off jawbone and "no ORGANS, not even a liver.”

Social media users suspected that Day had been subjected to torture, mutilation, organ harvesting or all three. “Autopsy Reports Find Jelani Day’s Body Was Completely Mutilated: Brain & Other Organs Missing," one Facebook post shared over 25,000 times reads.

But authorities say that is not the case.

These claims stem from confusion over the existence of two autopsies. The second one noted bones and organs were missing, but that's only because they had been removed during the first autopsy. Though Day's body was severely decomposed, “no organs were missing” when the corpse was recovered, LaSalle County, Illinois, coroner Rich Ploch told USA TODAY in a phone interview.

Day’s mother, Carmen Bolden Day, said the same in statements released on Facebook.

"I was and continue to constantly receive messages and questions about organ harvesting which again I said, was NOT the case," she wrote on Facebook on Oct. 12.

USA TODAY reached out to several users who shared the claim for comment.

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Day's body was found with organs intact

Day's body was found floating in the Illinois River on Sept. 4, 10 days after he was reported missing. All of his organs were intact at the time, the LaSalle County coroner said.

Several users on social media cited a Chicago Sun-Times opinion column from Oct. 8, in which the author describes the results of an official autopsy and another, private autopsy conducted weeks later, as told by Day’s mother and lawyer.

"The corpse had no eyeballs, only sockets. ... His jawbone had been ‘sawed out," the article reads. "The family’s private forensic pathologist, could find no brain, according to Day and her attorney. No organs. Neither liver. Nor spleen."

Neither autopsy report has been released to the public, and attempts to reach Day and her private investigator for comment were unsuccessful.

However, the body described in this account of the second autopsy is consistent with actions taken during the first autopsy.

"When we recovered this individual's body on the 4th, there were no organs missing," Ploch said.

However, Ploch said environmental conditions left Day's organs in a state of "severe decomposition." In the days before Day's body was found, the water temperature in the river was relatively high – approximately 77 degrees, Ploch said – and the weather hot and humid.

In addition, there was evidence that fish and turtles had been active around the body, Ploch said.

Another reason that some organs may have seemed to be missing is that they were removed during the first autopsy, as is standard procedure.

When conducting an autopsy, forensic pathologists look closely at organs to find evidence of natural disease and trauma. They remove organs, including the brain, and dissect them, then return them in a bag and keep them with the body.

A county coroner in Illinois confirmed that the body found in the Illinois River on September 4 was the missing graduate student Jelani Day. His cause of death is not known at this time.
A county coroner in Illinois confirmed that the body found in the Illinois River on September 4 was the missing graduate student Jelani Day. His cause of death is not known at this time.

That's what happened during the initial autopsy, Ploch said.

A certified forensic pathologist conducted the initial autopsy through the LaSalle County coroner's office on Sept. 5, one day after Day's body was found, according to Ploch.

The second, private autopsy, on the other hand, was conducted several weeks later. According to Ploch, the body was not released to the family until after it was identified on Sept. 23.

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Bone samples used to identify body

The "sawed-out" jawbone that was noted in the second autopsy added to social media users' suspicions of foul play, and it's true that Day's jawbone, as well as his tibia, were surgically removed from the body.

But that was also a result of the first autopsy.

According to Ploch, the two bone samples were collected as part of a standard procedure for determining the identity of "severely decomposed or unrecognizable decedents."

Day's jawbone was surgically removed and presented to a forensic odontologist for comparison of dental records, and Day's tibia was surgically removed and collected by the Illinois State Police for DNA analysis at its crime lab, Ploch said.

Once the lab analyses were complete, the bones were placed with the body, Ploch said, and the body was officially discharged to the custody of a licensed funeral home. The home certified the body was in order, he said, but it's unclear what happened after that.

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Our rating: False

We rate the claim that Day's body was missing organs and bones when found FALSE, based on our research. The LaSalle County coroner told USA TODAY that no organs or bones were missing when the body was found on Sept. 4. The bones were surgically removed to help identify Day, and organs were removed as a standard part of the initial autopsy.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Autopsy of Illinois man did not find missing organs, bones

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