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I write this letter in reference to the Thursday, June 10, 2021, announcement by the Government of Guyana to correct the historical wrongs concerning the 1980 bomb-blast death of world-renowned Guyanese Historian and Political Activist, Dr Walter A. Rodney.
According to media reports, the Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs, Hon Anil Nandlall told the National Assembly that in response to a request by the widow of Dr Rodney and his children, the government would be making moves to amend Dr. Rodney’s cause of death on his death certificate from ‘death by misadventure’ to ‘assassination’.
While it is good to see the Guyana Government make moves to have the historical records regarding Dr Rodney’s death provide context on how he died, including more steps to correct the wrongs and allow the Rodney family to feel a sense of vindication, I was a little perplexed at the classification of ‘assassination’ as a cause of death as supported by the AG.
In both law and medicine, the cause of death lists the disease(s) or medical injuries that resulted in the loss of life. It is an official determination of conditions resulting in a human’s death, and this is recorded on a death certificate as determined by a medical examiner. Assassination, which is widely defined as murder, is therefore not a cause of death.
To illustrate this, in 1963, US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated via shooting in Dallas at 12:30 pm CST on Friday, November 22 of that year. Kennedy was taken to Parkland Hospital for emergency medical treatment, where he was pronounced dead 30 minutes later.
Does Kennedy’s cause of death list ‘assassination’ on his official death certificate? A quick web research of the certificate as presented at the US Library of Congress lists his cause of death as ‘multiple gunshot wounds of the head and neck’ and said the injury occurred as a result of ‘shots by a high-powered rifle.’
More recently, the 2020 death of George P. Floyd sparked worldwide condemnation and a reckoning of global protests against police brutality and racial injustice. While his death was ruled a homicide, the first autopsy report from Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office concluded that his cause of death was “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression.”
That conclusion, death due to heart failure was followed by a second conclusion reached by an independent examiner hired by Floyd’s family which listed his cause of death as “asphyxiation from sustained pressure.”
Given the above examples in relation to this significant case here in Guyana, when I stumbled upon the proposed decision of the Government to amend the historical records and list Dr Rodney’s cause of death as ‘assassination’ (murder), it left me baffled. While I am no medical examiner and applaud the good intention behind the proposal to amend Dr Rodney’s death certificate, the purpose of this letter is to ensure this issue is settled once and for all and have the records reflect that we did not correct a wrong with a wrong.
Ron O. D’Avilar