Monday, May 30, 2016


Our story datelined 23 May 16 described an unusual case of death by drowning wherein the subsequent forensic autopsy report obscured the cause of death.  The forensic autopsy is supposed to answer questions. In this case there is worry that it did not and that intervention by legal authority was contributory. The question then arises as to who is allowed into the autopsy suite during a forensic evaluation. For the decedent's autopsy in this case the attendees included the pathologist who did the examination, one MD witness, the investigator for Patton State Hospital, two detectives, and the forensic specialist from the San Bernardino Police Department. The question that has arisen is to what extent the presence of law enforcement intimidated the pathologist or to what extend commentary from the non-MDs may have contributed to an altered conclusion. 

Senator Pan's bill, SB 1189, is intended to resolve these issues. It is sponsored by the Union of American Physicians and Dentists which represents state and county employed pathologists. SB 1189, which has already been amended twice, reportedly would require that doctors doing the autopsy would not only be duly licensed in California as a physician and surgeon but would also "preferably" be a "diplomat of the American Board of Pathology." This provision would increase the level of expertise of pathologists doing forensic autopsies. It has since been amended out of the bill.

SB 1189 would also require that police and other law enforcement personnel who have completed specified training could be allowed into the autopsy suite "at the discretion of the forensic pathologist." It would also "prohibit law enforcement personnel directly involved with the care and custody of an individual who died due to involvement of law enforcement activity from being involved in any portion of the postmortem examination being inside the autopsy suite during the performance of the autopsy." 

These provisions are not favored by law enforcement. These changes are desired by pathologists who want to do their work under as scientific and non-political conditions as possible. The Counties, responsible for costs, say that all of these changes will exceed their budgets and want the costs taken over by the state which does not want these costs added to the state budget. 

SB 1189 got delayed in Senate Appropriations but cleared "approps" on May 27th. Its next stop should be a senate floor vote. This publication recommends an aye vote. SB 1189 would then go to the Assembly where we recommend that teeth be put back into the bill.

Forensic autopsies should be done by pathologists with special training in the discipline. Law enforcement personnel should be allowed into the autopsy suite only at the discretion of the pathologists doing the examinations. Reports that conclude that the "manner of death" is "undetermined" should be limited to those reports where every effort has been undertaken to reach a scientific conclusion. We conclude that the current report herein discussed is thorough in reported details but falls short with reference to its conclusions. SB 1189 would strengthen the hand of the forensic pathologists who are responsible for the reports. 

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