Sacramento Bee

Amid Stephon Clark autopsy controversy, doctors push bill to overhaul coroner's offices

August 14, 2018

By Taryn Luna

As Sacramento prosecutors consider dueling autopsies in the police shooting of Stephon Clark, a state senator is pushing a bill at the Capitol he says would give the public more reason to trust investigations into officer-involved shootings.

Sen. Richard Pan's Senate Bill 1303 would require coroners in the state to be licensed physicians who work independently of county sheriff's offices.

"The purpose of my bill is to bring our autopsy system up to the modern age," said Pan, a Sacramento lawmaker who introduced the bill. "Fundamentally, the most important part is to ensure confidence in our justice system by essentially eliminating potential conflicts of interest between the autopsy or coroner’s report and law enforcement."

California, Nevada and Montana are the only states with a sheriff-coroner system, which allows a county's top cop to also oversee autopsies.

SB 1303 would require counties with a population of at least 500,000 to replace a sheriff-coroner's office with a medical examiner's office. Smaller counties would still have the option of sticking with the current system.

Pan introduced the bill, sponsored by the California Medical Association, in response to the resignations of two forensic pathologists from the San Joaquin County Sheriff-Coroner's Office last year. The pathologists alleged that Sheriff-Coroner Steve Moore influenced them to classify officer-involved homicides as accidents, among other interference.

"The forensic pathologist who is doing (the autopsy) should not be an arm of the prosecution and should not be an arm of the defense," Pan said. "Their job should be trying to provide, to the best of their ability, the objective facts of the findings."

It's unclear how the bill, if currently enacted, might have influenced the investigation into the high-profile Sacramento police shooting of Clark.

Police fired 20 rounds at Clark, an unarmed 22-year-old black man, in his grandmother's south Sacramento backyard. Officers responded to a call about a man breaking car windows in Meadowview and said they believed Clark was carrying a gun that was never found.

Pan said he had not read dueling autopsy reports written by a doctor hired by Clark's family and the Sacramento County Coroner's Office. He did not want to comment specifically on the case.

Kimberly Gin, the Sacramento County Coroner, is not a doctor and said she worked with five pathologists on the autopsy of Clark's body. The county reported that Clark was shot seven times, including three shots in the back.

In the private autopsy for the family, Dr. Bennet Omalu, a noted pathologist who resigned in San Joaquin County, found that Clark was shot eight times and six of the bullets entered his back.

He defended his findings, which the county called erroneous, and criticized the county's procedures. Omalu said Clark's spinal cord was not removed in the county autopsy, which he contends should have been done.

Pan said autopsies generally differ depending on the thoroughness of the investigation and the tests that may have been conducted. Speaking broadly, he said his bill will allow physicians to determine the procedures that should be conducted based on medical guidelines instead of sheriffs who may be held back by budgetary constraints or pressure to protect their officers from responsibility.

"In this situation, there was a second autopsy and there might be honest differences in opinion," Pan said. "The real challenge is when you have a situation where the person who is providing the only autopsy report is an employee of someone who may have a vested interest in a particular outcome."

Omalu and a pathologist who reviewed the county coroner's report disagree on more than the entry points and number of bullets that pierced the 22-year-old's body. Omalu and Dr. Gregory D. Reiber are also on opposite sides of Pan's bill.

Reiber testified against the bill on behalf of the California State Coroner's Association in a Senate Public Safety Committee last month. He agreed with opposition form the California State Association of Counties, which argued in support of existing law that allows counties to decide whether they want to appoint a medical examiner. San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco, among other counties, operate with a medical examiner model.

Reiber said the current system takes advantage of doctors' strengths in determining the cause of death and allows investigators to consider outside findings from the scene to determine manner of death. He said the bill aims to alleviate concerns about conflicts of interest but would create concerns about doctors.

"I understand the concern over conflicts of interest and public concern over cops covering for cops basically," Reiber said in the committee hearing. "Medical examiner systems have the other challenge of doctors protecting doctors."

In an interview, Omalu called Reiber's comment "one of the most ridiculous things that have been said."

Omalu said doctors are beholden to strict medical standards and supervised by their medical boards. He cited studies dating back more than 50 years that support a system of medical examiners over sheriff-coroners and said doctors should be allowed to conduct autopsies without the interference of police.

During the Senate hearing, he questioned why California, the largest state in the nation, is working with an antiquated system. Omalu said the current system also prevents doctors from making scientific discoveries during autopsies, which led to his own major breakthroughs on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy related to head injuries and West Nile Virus.

"There has not been any sheriff in California in the past 100 years who has published a single scientific paper," Omalu said.