Two San Joaquin County forensic pathologists have accused the sheriff of meddling in death investigations in order to protect officers of the law. Documents released Monday by a pathologist who announced her resignation last week raise serious questions about the integrity of investigations of people who died in the custody of law enforcement officers who used Tasers or other types of force.
Dr. Susan Parson, who performs autopsies for the county, accused Sheriff-Coroner Steve Moore of interfering with her work and sent copies of emails, notes and other correspondence to the district attorney and the Board of Supervisors documenting her claims.
‘The sheriff was using his political office as the coroner to protect police officers whenever someone died while in custody or during an arrest. … I had thought that this was initially an anomaly, but now, especially beginning in 2016, it has become routine practice.’
The documents, obtained by KQED, also include correspondence and memos written by the county’s chief forensic pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu.
The Nigerian-born neuropathologist rose to national prominence in 2005 after he published his discovery of a degenerative brain disease in football players he named chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. His discovery was documented in the 2015 film “Concussion,” starring Will Smith.
San Joaquin County hired Omalu in 2007 to raise the standards of death investigations. But in a memo Omalu wrote on Aug. 22, 2017, he indicated it was a losing prospect.
“I have always believed that the longer I spent in the office, the better the office would become,” Omalu wrote. “I was wrong.”
In March 2017, Omalu and Parson began documenting incidents they believe show wrongdoing by Sheriff Moore. The two doctors allege the sheriff labeled certain deaths as “accidents” rather than “homicides” to shield from prosecution law enforcement officers who were involved.
In the Aug. 22, 2017, memo, one of several he drafted over the past nine months to document his concerns, Omalu wrote, “The Sheriff does whatever he feels like doing as the coroner, in total disregard of bioethics, standards of practice of medicine and the generally accepted principles of medicine.”
The forensic pathologists raised other concerns, including months-long delays in getting written reports from sheriff’s investigators that the pathologists needed to complete their cases. And, in several instances, they say they discovered that a sheriff’s deputy who oversees coroner operations ordered technicians to cut the hands off bodies, without the knowledge, consent or supervision of the physicians.
In a telephone interview with KQED Monday, Sheriff Moore denied allegations that he had meddled in forensic autopsy investigations.
“That is untrue,” Moore said. “As coroner, I have not interfered. I’ve never changed any cause of death.”
Determining the cause of death — what killed a person — is the purview of the forensic pathologist, he said, but he has the final say on determining the manner: whether a person’s death is an accident, a homicide, a suicide, a result of natural causes or undetermined.
‘As coroner, I have not interfered. I have never changed any cause of death.’
“I’m charged with the responsibility to establish the manner of death and I do that based on the totality of the circumstances, up to and including the autopsy report provided by the doctor and the investigative report done by the coroner’s investigators.”