Criminal Justice

LAPD Pressured Coroner to Change Findings in Police Shooting

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From the L.A. Times:

The Los Angeles Police Department waged an aggressive behind-the-scenes campaign to convince coroner's officials to change their finding that a SWAT officer's bullet killed a 19-month-old girl held hostage by her father three years ago, according to records reviewed by The Times.

The intense lobbying effort, which involved one of the department's highest-ranking officials, led to significant friction between the LAPD and coroner's office. It also raises questions about whether the LAPD crossed an ethical line in pushing so hard, some medical and law enforcement experts said.

The department rested its case on self-serving conclusions by a four-year ballistics investigator with no medical training, challenging a team of experienced medical examiners in the county coroner's office.

The department tried repeatedly to find a pathologist to review the case, according to the LAPD's case log, which shows that Hudson tried to contact at least eight outside experts. One of the requests was made to the U.S. military's pathology institute. When the institute refused to accept the case, Berkow formally appealed to the Department of Defense and was turned down again, records show.

The LAPD's search led eventually to Dr. William Oliver, a forensic pathologist at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. For a $2,000 consulting fee, Oliver agreed to review the case in the summer of 2006, according to the LAPD's internal case log of the investigation. His conclusions, however, were not what the LAPD wanted to hear.

"There is little or no good evidence that the wound is from . . . a handgun," he wrote.

I don't agree with how often and under what circumstances LAPD deploys its SWAT team.  But it is worth noting that this incident aside, they are extremely well-trained, and have a near-spotless record.

That said, while there's nothing wrong with seeking an outside opinion, there's plenty wrong with pressuring the coroner to change his findings before seeking an outside opinion. Kudos to the L.A. county coroner for holding his ground.

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  1. I don’t know why they think they have the right to influence results at all, unless the believe their “blue code of silence” extends to all people who work with the PD. In which case, why even go through the trouble of gathering evidence or having trials at all?

  2. It also raises questions about whether the LAPD crossed an ethical line in pushing so hard, some medical and law enforcement experts said.

    The same coroner is good enough for the LAPD to use as an expert in determining cause of death for the victims in their own cases. They don’t like his findings in this case (because the testing points to them) so they pressure the coroner to reverse his findings. Pretty much answers the same questions it raises.

  3. So where do you go to find a coroner that will give you a less embarrassing conclusion than the one that all the evidence points to?

    Georgia, naturally.

  4. Hugh, I thought that was Mississippi, until Radley rode that guy’s ass into the ground.

  5. I don’t know why they think they have the right to influence results at all, unless the believe their “blue code of silence” extends to all people who work with the PD. In which case, why even go through the trouble of gathering evidence or having trials at all?

    In too many jurisdictions the cops, D.A., crime lab techs and coroner perceive themselve to be “on the same team”. They cover each others backs in court, that is commit perjury and other professional misconduct. In some places the judiciary has joined the club.* If you give a crap about the concept of justice, this has got to bother the hell out of you.

    I second Radley in giving props to the L.A. County coroner.

    * The entire state of Mississippi apperas to be one such jurisdiction.

  6. Hugh Akston | January 8, 2009, 9:01am | #
    So where do you go to find a coroner that will give you a less embarrassing conclusion than the one that all the evidence points to?

    Georgia, naturally.

    If you stop listening to that imaginary banjo music in your head you might have better reading comprehension:

    The LAPD’s search led eventually to Dr. William Oliver, a forensic pathologist at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. For a $2,000 consulting fee, Oliver agreed to review the case in the summer of 2006, according to the LAPD’s internal case log of the investigation. His conclusions, however, were not what the LAPD wanted to hear.

    “There is little or no good evidence that the wound is from . . . a handgun,” he wrote.

  7. I suppose I am guilty of painting the South with a rather broad brush. I did misremember the focal parish of Radley’s mad-dog investigations, but I also just figured the entire region to be populated with slack-jawed, inbred, racist troglodytes. And governed by heavy-set crooks in sweat-plastered seersucker. Can’t imagine where I got that impression.

    mea culpa.

    SIV,
    If you read my post more closely, you’ll see that my claim was about where the LAPD went looking for the conclusion, not what it found when it got there.

    Unlike the rusticated sons of the soil in your neck of the woods, I can read the Queen’s English.

  8. Hugh,

    Perhaps the LAPD made the same stereotyped regionally bigoted association you did. Off to slop the hogs, fight some roosters and see if my cousin Daisy Mae is willin’,well she is if’n I can catch her!:)

  9. I think there’s an open question about whether a prosecutor’s disproportionate access to the coroner, crime labs, etc., especially when we’re talking about economically disadvantaged defendants, somehow constitutes a breach of due process.

  10. …not just in this case but generally speaking.

  11. Ken,

    Radley made a similar point, arguing quite against normal libertarian instincts, that public defenders need bigger budgets, better access to evidence and forensics, and, yes, even independent analysis.

  12. Radley made a similar point, arguing quite against normal libertarian instincts, that public defenders need bigger budgets, better access to evidence and forensics, and, yes, even independent analysis.

    Maybe we should merge the DA and the public defenders offices, and assign cases randomly, so that on any given case a particular attorney could be representing the prosecution or the defense.

    As defense lawyers, they’d have to be real careful about maintaining confidentiality and privilege, but it might be interesting to try.

  13. I’m in commercial real estate development, yeah, hard times, don’t ask, but, you know, when we do due diligence on some land we want to buy, we don’t take the seller’s consultant’s word on it. We hire our own consultants to do the environmental analysis, biology surveys, seismic surveys, etc. We would be horribly remiss in our responsibilities to our investors if we didn’t.

    Actually, to further the example, here in California, we have CEQA…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Environmental_Quality_Act

    …and it’s standard practice now that the CEQA consultant can’t be hired by the developer anymore, the developer pays the city for the cost of the consultant ahead of time, but the CEQA consultant actually contracts with the city.

    They made it that way ’cause, guess what? Consultants tend to come up with the results that the person paying the bill is looking for.

    Appraisals tend to work that way too. I don’t think you’ll find a bank out there right now that’ll accept an appraisal that was paid for by the land or homeowner. They charge whoever wants the loan for the appraisal, but then they go out and hire their own appraiser. ’cause guess what? Appraisers tend to find what the person paying the bill is looking for.

    The framers, in their infinite wisdom, didn’t and couldn’t have foreseen the importance of forensic evidence in criminal cases today. …but they sure seem to have understood the importance of fair play. And if they knew that forensics reports would be coming from the FBI and paid for by prosecutors, I suspect they would have demanded some fair play for people who couldn’t afford to run the tests themselves in an independent lab.

    It just seems like a natural extension of having a right to representation.

  14. “and have a near-spotless record…”

    Yo, isn’t the article’s point that the SWAT team illegitimately erased a spot from it’s record? Are we to belive this was the first time?

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