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Disputed autopsies fuel effort for independent coroners

A dead body in a county morgue. (Photo: John Gomez)

Can law enforcement be trusted to fairly review law enforcement-involved shootings?

Some state senators think not, citing the example of San Joaquin County, which saw two forensic pathologists resign after claiming that Sheriff Steve Moore pressured them to change their findings in officer-involved deaths. The pathologists claimed the sheriff pressured them to classify the deaths as accidents.

The San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors has decided on its own to eliminate the sheriff-coroner’s office and install separate sheriff’s and medical examiner positions.

Moore, who is up for election in June, denies wrongdoing and points to an independent audit by Roger Mitchell of RAM Consulting and a separate county counsel’s investigation that found that the allegations made by the resigning pathologists were “unfounded.”

Nonetheless, Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento and Sen. Cathleen Galgiani of Stockton introduced Senate Bill 1303 requiring six counties – including San Joaquin – to institute a medical examiner who works independently of the sheriff.

Since then, the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors has decided on its own to eliminate the sheriff-coroner’s office and install separate sheriff’s and medical examiner positions.

But the legislators are continuing to push their bill, which would affect Contra Costa, Kern, Riverside, Sonoma and Stanislaus counties.

Those counties are all that remain after the bill’s exemptions, which exclude counties with populations under 500,000, charter counties with their own governance systems and counties that already have a separate medical examiner.

Sacramento County is exempted from SB 1303 because it is a charter county, which has more leeway in setting its own rules.

In an email statement, Pan said his bill would bring the affected counties “into the modern age of death reporting.”

The bill would not affect Sacramento County, which has contended with competing autopsies in the case of Stephen Clark, the unarmed 22-year-old black man fatally shot in March by police in his grandmother’s backyard.

In that case, Sacramento County Coroner Kimberly Gin, who is not a doctor, released a report saying that Clark was shot seven times, three times in the back. That differed with results released in a private autopsy by Bennet Omalu, one of the pathologists who resigned from San Joaquin County, which found that Clark was shot eight times, six times in the back.

Sacramento County is exempted from SB 1303 because it is a charter county, which has more leeway in setting its own rules.

“The public and juries need to trust that they will receive accurate and objective information to make the correct verdict on a criminal case.” — Richard Pan

Pan contends that California’s sheriff-coroner system is out of date.

Only two other states in the country – Nevada and Montana – have combined sheriff-coroner positions. Sheriff-Coroners investigate and determine the circumstances, manner and cause of violent or unusual deaths. Unlike a medical examiner,the sheriff-coroner is not required to have a medical degree.

“Autopsy reports provide critical information in determining the cause and manner of death and we must have confidence in their accuracy,” Pan said. “The public and juries need to trust that they will receive accurate and objective information to make the correct verdict on a criminal case.”

SB 1303, which is currently in the Appropriations Committee, is opposed by the California State Sheriffs Association and Urban Counties of California.

Cory Salzillo, legislative director for the sheriffs association, said the bill is unnecessary because counties are already free to set up an independent medical examiner if they choose.

“It takes away the potential perception that there might be a conflict of interest, because the medical examiner is separate from law enforcement.” — James Carry

He added that the sheriff-coroner system provides checks and balances with a physician determining the cause of death and the sheriff-coroner determining the manner of death. “Working together allows the different types of professionals to do their jobs,” he said.

Moreover, he pointed out that there is a national shortage of forensic pathologists, with only 500 board-certified professionals working full-time now. He said it may be difficult to find people to fill the new medical examiner positions.

Jolena Voorhis, executive director of Urban Counties of California, said SB 1303 is one of several bills the group is opposing this year because of the restrictions it puts on counties making their own decisions. “We prefer to have flexibility at the local level,” she said.

Pan: California is the wealthiest, most populous state in America and should be able to find a way to create a better system.

But the California Medical Association says the bill is a necessary step to improve death investigations. James Carry, a CMA member and president of the California Society of Pathologists, said the bill is important because it depoliticizes death investigations.

“It takes away the potential perception that there might be a conflict of interest, because the medical examiner is separate from law enforcement,” he said.

While he agrees there is a national shortage of forensic pathologists, he said it’s not necessary to be board certified to do the job. Medical examiners could serve more than one county if necessary.

He pointed out that California is the wealthiest, most populous state in America and should be able to find a way to create a better system.

Pan added that a state law is necessary to force the creation of a separate medical examiner office because the state has an interest in equal justice and impartiality.

“This bill simply moves the pathologist that is already employed by the county to another office that is not overseen by the sheriff,” he said in an email. “It’s important to note that there is a significant cost when our justice system has been compromised.”

 


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