Bakersfield Californian

OUR VIEW: Who should speak for the dead?

March 17, 2018

A controversy up the road in San Joaquin County has once again fueled criticism of a conflict-plagued system in which a California county sheriff also serves as the county coroner.

Ripples from the controversy and a proposed state law are certain to be felt in Kern County, where a sheriff-coroner system has been the focus of occasional criticism since its creation in the early 1990s.

Senate Bill 1303 by Sen. Richard Pan, a physician, and Sen. Cathleen Galgiani would require counties with a population of greater than 500,000 people to replace their sheriff-coroner’s office with an independent medical examiner’s office.

The bill was introduced following the resignation last November of San Joaquin County’s two top medical examiners, who documented incidents of alleged wrongdoing by their boss, the county sheriff-coroner. Among other things, the two doctors allege the sheriff labeled certain deaths as “accidents,” rather than “homicides,” to shield from prosecution law enforcement officers who were involved.

The San Joaquin County district attorney has called for the coroner’s responsibilities to be removed from the sheriff. County officials have commissioned a study to compare the current sheriff-coroner structure with a medical examiner one. Meanwhile, Pan and Galgiani’s bill is moving through the Legislature and gaining the support of groups, including medical associations.

Why does it matter who “speaks for the dead?” Why should it matter who has the final say if a death is a homicide, accident, or suicide? The determination can affect such things as insurance benefits, civil liability, reputation and criminal justice. Investigations of in-custody deaths and officer-involved deaths are a coroner’s particularly sensitive responsibility.

In 2015, The Guardian, a British daily newspaper, with an international reach, profiled Kern as the county with the most officer-involved deaths per capital in the United States. So, when investigations of these deaths are being overseen by Kern’s top law enforcement officer, the real or apparent conflict can breed public skepticism of the results.

For the results to be trusted by the public, the coroner, or medical examiner doing the investigation should be independent of law enforcement. And that’s what SB 1303 proposes.

A majority of California’s counties in recent years have moved to sheriff-coroner systems through merger of once independent posts.

Kern’s coroner was an independently elected county official until the early 1990s. But even in the early years, coroners and their staffs generally had law enforcement backgrounds and enjoyed a chummy relationship with local law enforcement agencies. 

That ended in 1982, when nurse Helen Frankel successfully challenged long-time Coroner Richard Gervais, who oversaw a department plagued by inefficiency and repeatedly criticized by the county Grand Jury.

Frankel, who became California’s first elected woman coroner, made it clear she would not be one of the “good old boys.” Rather, she often rankled law enforcement agencies with her insistence that her job was to speak for the dead, because the dead could no longer speak for themselves.

Upon Frankel’s announcement that she was retiring in the early 1990s, the Kern sheriff quickly proposed and the Board of Supervisors agreed to merge the departments and hand over the coroner’s responsibilities to the sheriff.

When a sheriff-coroner is investigating an officer-involved or in-custody death, or when a death investigation can influence a criminal prosecution, some may question a sheriff-coroner’s findings. No doubt, honest people can honestly handle such potential conflicts.

But as important is the public’s trust that a death determination is truthful. The best way to protect that trust is to remove the real, or apparent conflict.