Monday, February 19, 2018

PART ONE: FORENSIC AUTOPSY LEGISLATION, SB 1189 & SB 1303: what happens when someone dies while in administrative custody?

The first hint that something was wrong in the way forensic autopsies were handled occurred after a psychiatric technician at Patton State Hospital found a decedent with "his head and torso in the trashcan, with his legs across the top of the hamper ... a cloth bag over head and face." The psych tech "pulled (the decedent) out of the trashcan." The man was dead.

A forensic autopsy showed a "a single small petechial hemohrrage in the upper outer quadrant of the left sclerae and conjunctivae, consistent with a head down position." There was also an "acute hemorrhage of the tongue."

Subsequently certain conclusions were drawn including that the psych tech had discovered a "probable drowning" -- not exactly a daring conclusion given the evidence. Official investigation and forensic autopsy followed. The physician's official findings seemed surprisingly tentative given the evidence. The diagnosis was recorded as a "probable drowning (italics added)." It was also stated that the decedent's "manner" of death was "undetermined."  Homicide was not discussed.

In this case the actual forensic autopsy was done by a licensed M.D. Witnesses present included an investigator from Patton State Hospital, one other MD, two detectives, and a forensic specialist from the San Bernardino Police Department. Why were witnesses associated with the decedent's detention present along with a preponderance of law enforcement personnel? The answer is that homicide was a consideration and so was possible mishandling of the case by law enforcement. The forensic autopsy became contentious

As a consequence of this case Senator Pan authored SB 1189 of which one of the provisions was to prevent law enforcement involved in or responsible for the custody of a decedent from being present at a forensic autopsy where their own actions or dereliction may have contributed to the decedent's demise.

The bill stated that the cause and manner of death must be determined by a licensed physician (this issue comes up again in SB 1303). One part of the bill that raised hackles was the section allowing law enforcement personnel to be present in the autopsy suite at the discretion of the pathologist and then only upon completion of pertinent education and training. That's when the sparks started flying. In due course, the bill got amended (some assert it was watered down), but was eventually signed into law on 28 September 2016 and became effective on 1 January 2017.

So now, we ask, why do we need another bill, SB 1303 (Pan)? Stay tuned for Part II. 


"Probable drowning (SB 1189, Pan & Jackson)," The Weinmann Report,, 23 May 2016

"When is Death by Drowning Described as 'Undetermined?' How SB 1189 (Pan) Could Bring Clarity, The Weinmann Report,, 30 May 2016

"Forensic Autopsy Bill, SB 1189, Clears Senate, Moves to Assembly," The Weinmann Report,, 2 June 2016

News & Information, Vol. 31 No. 27 Senate Bill 1189 Amends Requirements Relating to Autopsies, 

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