Stockton Record

Bill would require coroner change; ‘This is about confidence in our justice system’

February 26, 2018

By Alex Breitler

While San Joaquin County leaders consider whether to switch to an independent medical examiner’s office, legislation introduced this week at the state Capitol would basically take the decision out of their hands.

The bill, brought by Democratic Sens. Richard Pan and Cathleen Galgiani, would require counties with a population of greater than 500,000 people to replace their coroner’s office with an independent medical examiner’s office by January 2019.

Most California counties still use the sheriff-coroner model in which the elected sheriff serves in both capacities. That structure has come under scrutiny after two San Joaquin County pathologists alleged late last year that Sheriff Steve Moore interfered in their investigations.

The county is now considering whether to change to a medical examiner’s office, but some supervisors have raised concerns about the potential cost.

They should consider the cost of not changing it, said Pan, a physician who represents the Sacramento and Elk Grove areas.

“Fundamentally, this is about confidence in our justice system,” Pan said Friday. “Whatever the price, I don’t think it’s going to come up to something that’s outrageous for a justice system that people trust. When people don’t trust the autopsies, that is expensive in its own way, not only financially but in terms of what happens in our communities.”

One of the two county pathologists, Dr. Bennet Omalu, is on record supporting the bill, known as Senate Bill 1303.

“There should never be a perceived or real suspicion by anyone in our community that the opinions provided by a physician regarding causes and manners of death, especially in the court of law, are biased or have been influenced by any interested party,” Omalu wrote in a statement released by Pan’s office.

Medical associations are also voicing early support. “SB1303 is smart and responsible policy as it only applies to the largest counties that have the resources to establish an independent medical examiner’s office,” said San Joaquin Medical Society President R. Grant Mellor.

County officials have hired a Washington, D.C.-based medical examiner to study both the current sheriff-coroner structure and a possible medical examiner structure. The $50,000 study is supposed to be finished by April; some observers have called for a speedier resolution, given the fact that Omalu and Dr. Susan Parson have said they will consider returning to the county if, in fact, an independent medical examiner’s office is established.

A majority of county supervisors, however, have indicated it’s important to wait for the consultant to finish his work.

“I welcome a full and thorough third-party analysis that provides our board a balanced assessment of what is working, and what may need improvement in our current sheriff-coroner operations,” Bob Elliott, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said last week. “This will allow our board to make fact-based decisions on how best to provide services to our county.”

Pan said switching to a medical examiner’s system doesn’t have to be expensive in a county that already has forensic pathologists on staff, like San Joaquin. It’s more of a restructuring, he said. “The issue isn’t that you have to hire a whole bunch of extra people, necessarily,” Pan said.

It’s possible the state would have to kick in some funding if it is later determined that Pan’s bill — should it be passed and signed into law — creates a state mandate for local governments.