Bill to Boost Public Confidence in Autopsy Reports Passes State Senate

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

June 2, 2016

SACRAMENTO – A bill jointly authored by Dr. Richard Pan and Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, SB 1189 to ensure autopsies are conducted only by licensed physicians and forensic autopsy reports are accurate and unbiased, was passed by the California State Senate on a vote of 23 to 13.  

“For many families, autopsies are an important part of the process of seeking peace of mind after a loved one has passed,” said Dr. Pan, a pediatrician and Senator representing the Sacramento region. “But autopsies are also a critical component of gaining valuable medical knowledge that can save lives. When autopsies are not performed by the medical experts and pathologists that are specially trained to use surgical techniques, microscopy, laboratory analysis and medical records, the public loses out on the opportunity to better understand and discover diseases as well as identify public health emergencies and health hazards.”

“In my district, at the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s office, it was discovered that a number of autopsies were done by unlicensed medical staff while the then-Medical Examiner was on vacation,” said Jackson. “This has brought understandable distress and anger to families, eroded the public’s trust, and raised a number of important questions about how we conduct postmortem exams. This bill takes an important step toward clarifying current law on this issue by ensuring that only licensed physicians can conduct these examinations and that they are done with great integrity and at the highest standard of care.”

Senate Bill 1189 would require a forensic autopsy to only be conducted by a licensed physician or surgeon and defines such autopsies as a medical examination to determine cause of death. Conversely, a postmortem examination is defined as the external examination of the body where no cause of death is determined.

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.”

SB 1189 is sponsored by the Union of American Physicians and Dentists (UAPD). “For the sake of families seeking closure and justice, we must ensure the accuracy of forensic autopsies,” said Dr. Stuart A. Bussey, M.D., J.D., president of UAPD. 

“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 Dr. Judy Melinek, currently a pathologist for Alameda County and former Assistant Medical Examiner for the City & County of San Francisco and Santa Clara County.  “This system creates an injustice for families as well as confusion when the pathologist cannot defend the coroner’s interpretation on the death certificate.” 

"The provision to allow the forensic pathologist to decide which law enforcement agents (if any) are allowed in the autopsy suite is designed to keep officers safe from infection and ensure the integrity of the investigation. This is especially important in officer involved shootings or in-custody deaths where the coroner's investigation needs to be independent of law enforcement influence,” added Dr. Melinek.

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