Dr. Richard Pan Bill to Build Public Confidence in Autopsy Reports Passes Senate Health Committee

SB 1189 Prohibits Law Enforcement from Entering Autopsy Room When Individual Died in their Care & States Forensic Autopsies Must be Conducted by Medical Experts

April 20, 2016

SACRAMENTO – A bill jointly authored by Dr. Richard Pan and Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, SB 1189 to ensure autopsy reports are accurate and unbiased, was passed by the Senate Health Committee.

“SB 1189 builds public confidence and ensures accurate autopsy reports, which provide critical pieces of information in determining the cause and manner of death,” said Dr. Pan, a pediatrician and Senator representing the Sacramento region. “Not only do families deserve to know what happened to their loved ones, but the public and juries need to trust that they received accurate objective information to make the correct verdict on a criminal case.”

“In my district, at the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s office, it was recently discovered that a number of autopsies were done by staff without a medical license while the then-Medical Examiner was out of the state on vacation,” said Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara). “This has brought understandable distress and anger to families, eroded the public’s trust, and opened a pandora’s box of important questions about who and how we conduct postmortem exams. This bill takes an important step toward clarifying current law on this issue by ensuring that only licensed physicians or pathologists can conduct these examinations and that they are done with great integrity and at the highest standard of care.”

Currently, a county coroner does not have to be a licensed physician or pathologist. Also, in Fifty of California's 58 counties, the sheriff also serves as the coroner. The other eight counties (Calaveras, Inyo, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Ventura) have a coroner that is separate from the sheriff. 

Senate Bill 1189 would require that a medically trained licensed physician or surgeon conduct autopsies in California. Additionally, if law enforcement personnel was directly involved with the custody of an individual and that person died in their care, the law enforcement personnel would not be allowed inside the autopsy room during the performance of the autopsy.  Further, the bill requires police reports, crime scene photos and videos or other information that is in the possession of law enforcement be made available to the medical examiner prior to the completion of the death investigation.

“Allowing a law enforcement official that is directly involved in an incident to also be involved in the autopsy presents a major conflict of interest,” said Gregory Bentley President-Elect of the Consumer Attorneys of California. “Precluding law enforcement personnel from autopsies caused or contributed to by their conduct will help to reduce any undue pressure or bias in the course of the autopsy.”

“It is not uncommon for a forensic pathologist to determine the cause and manner of death and report it on an autopsy report, only to have something entirely different written on the death certificate by the county coroner,” said Judy Melinek, a former Assistant Medical Examiner for the City & County of San Francisco and Santa Clara County.  “This system creates and injustice for families as well as confusion when the pathologist cannot defend the coroner’s interpretation on the death certificate.” 

SB 1189 is sponsored by the Union of American Physicians and Dentists (UAPD). “We're glad the committee agrees that autopsies should be performed by licensed doctors,” said Stuart A. Bussey, M.D., J.D., president of UAPD. 

SB 1189 will be heard next in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

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