‘Unethical and wrong’: Medical examiners quit over claims of sheriff’s interference

‘Unethical and wrong’: Medical examiners quit over claims of sheriff’s interference
Two medical examiners in San Joaquin County, California have quit over claims the sheriff had interfered with bodies. They say he ordered corpses’ hands cut off and even pressured doctors to cover up homicides to protect law enforcement officers.

Dr. Susan Parson and Dr. Bennett Omalu have been documenting events inside the Sheriff-Coroner’s office for months, and released more than 100 pages of memos listing their allegations to the media this week. The documents were also sent to the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors and the county district attorney, in a push for a broader investigation into Sheriff Steve Moore.

"Before I began my documentation in May 2017, I had observed long before this that the sheriff was using his political office as the coroner to influence the death investigation of persons who die while in custody or during arrest by the police," wrote Omalu, the county’s chief medical examiner, in documents provided to the Associated Press. He resigned Tuesday.

“I had thought that this was initially an anomaly, but now, especially beginning in 2016, it has become routine practice,” he wrote.

Omalu is a nationally recognized forensic pathologist, best known for his work on concussion-related brain injuries sustained by many football players. The phenomenon was adapted by Hollywood in the 2015 blockbuster ‘Concussion,’ starring Will Smith.

“The sheriff does whatever he feels like doing as the coroner, in total disregard of bioethics, standards of practice of medicine and the generally accepted principles of medicine,” Omalu wrote in a memo dated August 22. He added that the interference "has become routine practice" since last year.

On multiple occasions, the sheriff asked Omalu to change his findings of the cause of death in officer-involved cases, including three officer-involved deaths in 2016, the pathologist said. The first time the sheriff made such a request was in 2008, when “information was intentionally withheld from me by the sheriff in order to mislead me from determining the case was a homicide,” Omalu wrote.

In one instance in 2016, Omalu said the sheriff asked him to change his findings in the death of Filberto Valencia. The 26-year-old was having a schizophrenic episode when his family called police for help. By the time they arrived, Valencia had left the home and barricaded himself in a residential facility with a a 10-year-old girl and three women.

When Stockton police intervened, an officer hit Valencia over the head twice with the butt of a gun before repeatedly punching him. A second officer hit him with a baton, while a third officer shot him four times with a Taser. Valencia became unresponsive and died. Omalu found his death was attributable to blunt force trauma and ruled it a homicide. The sheriff called for it to be changed to an accident.

“He said that I should amend my report and state that he died from the civilians and not the police officers. I told him I could not do it, first it was unethical and wrong,” Omalu said. The Valencia family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in the case.

Parson and Omalu allege the sheriff’s staff ordered them to cut off the hands of at least five corpses this year, and send them to a forensics lab to identify the deceased. Omalu and Parson both said the victim’s identity was already known and in other cases, police failed in attempts to identify the dead by investigative means.

“In my opinion, taking out the hand of these cases, was a form of body mutilation, which we should not be doing,” Omalu wrote in a May 25 memo.

Independent forensic pathologist Judy Melinek, who consults on legal cases, said the severing of hands for identification was “bizarre” and confirmed it was not standard practice.

“I have no idea why that would be medically necessary or forensically necessary,” Melinek told the Sacramento Bee. “You don’t need to do this for identification purposes. You could just take fingerprints.”

Other complaints were that the coroner’s office took months to complete routine paperwork and failed to account for bodies in the morgue. In dozens of instances, the sheriff’s staff failed to provide even basic information about deceased people, impeding the ability of doctors to investigate. That meant delays for families to claim the bodies, and often the bodies decomposed before autopsies could be done making it harder to determine the cause of death.

Omalu said he will stop conducting autopsies immediately, but noted his departure won’t take effect for three months, under his contract. Parson announced her resignation last week, according to Sacramento Bee.

The San Joaquin County District Attorney’s office said it had received the doctors’ allegations and was “in the process of gathering information concerning homicide cases, including deaths relating to law enforcement officer involvement.”

Moore has served as sheriff since 2007 and is up for reelection in November 2018. He has denied any wrongdoing.

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