Jovan Belcher’s brain showed signs of CTE, according to post-mortem exam

On Dec. 1, 2012, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, shooting her nine times, before taking his own life with a gunshot to the head.
On Dec. 1, 2012, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, shooting her nine times, before taking his own life with a gunshot to the head. The Kansas City Star

A post-mortem analysis of Jovan Belcher’s brain revealed a key signature of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, concluding that the 25-year-old football player was likely suffering from the degenerative neurological condition.

The news, first reported by The Star, is a potentially game-changing development at the intersection of two of the NFL’s biggest threats — head injuries and domestic violence.

Belcher was a starting linebacker for the Chiefs who shot and killed his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, then himself on Dec. 1, 2012. CTE is a degenerative brain disease found to cause dementia, aggression, confusion and depression among people who’ve suffered repeated head trauma, including football players.

The analysis was performed in New York at the request of lawyers representing the interests of Zoey Belcher, the daughter of Jovan Belcher and Perkins. The results can be used in ongoing litigation, both against the Chiefs and NFL. The Chiefs declined comment. The NFL did not immediately respond.

CTE has been found to cause erratic and sometimes tragic behavior by some NFL players, perhaps most notably Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, who killed himself last year. The disease, only recently diagnosable before death, has often been found in former and longtime football players.

Belcher is among the younger known cases of CTE. He played four seasons in the NFL, all with the Chiefs, and did not have a documented history of concussions. But friends have said Belcher had multiple concussions, and after the murder-suicide, stories emerged that he had become unpredictable and irritable. Belcher’s lawyers have consulted with a psychologist who is willing to state Belcher’s behavior is consistent with CTE.

Former professional wrestler Chris Benoit was found to have CTE after killing his wife and son before killing himself in 2007. But murder or other violence against others has not typically been associated with CTE.

Representatives of two Kansas City domestic violence shelters declined comment, saying they didn’t know enough about CTE or Belcher’s case. But generally, advocates stress that domestic violence is ultimately a choice, no matter the contributing factors.

Bennet Omalu, who is credited with discovering CTE, and Julian Bailes, founder of the Brain Injury Research Institute, each told the Star that Belcher’s brain could provide important scientific findings. Bailes stressed that these findings needed to be corroborated, and assuming they are, described them as “of great interest.”

“To have CTE changes in the brain of a 25-year-old is really unusual, and not a good thing,” he said. “But we can’t necessarily draw a connection between those changes we’re seeing in autopsy or pathological examination of his brain, and his behavior.”

Belcher’s daughter and mother would be eligible for up to $4 million under the proposed concussion settlement between the NFL and former players if it can be shown that Belcher had CTE. Lawyers representing Belcher’s daughter have also filed a wrongful-death suit against the Chiefs, and would have to convince a jury that CTE was more likely than not to have caused or been a contributing cause to Belcher killing Perkins and then himself.

Last year, at the request of Belcher’s family, his body was exhumed at North Babylon Cemetery in Bay Shore, N.Y. It was believed to be the first exhumation of a former NFL player, and done with the hopes of finding answers or at least clues about why Belcher shot Perkins nine times at the home they shared in Kansas City before driving to the Chiefs’ practice facility and shooting himself in the head, leaving Zoey, then three months old, orphaned.

The specimen was obviously damaged, but preserved enough for examination. Piotr Kozlowski, dean of research and professor of pathology at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City, signed the report.

It concludes: “The microscopic findings of neurofibrillary tangles in young person are fully consistent with the pathological presentation of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) as it is reported in the available medical literature.”

Belcher’s murder-suicide is the worst possible example of domestic violence, and these findings come as the NFL is under attack for its handling of domestic violence.

Ray Rice was initially suspended for two games, then given an indefinite ban for punching his then-fiancee unconscious at a New Jersey casino in February. San Francisco defensive lineman Ray McDonald continues to play after an alleged assault of his fiancée, and Panthers defensive lineman Greg Hardy is not playing while appealing a domestic violence conviction.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger.

Related stories from Kansas City Star