A scandal in San Joaquin County illustrates the problem with California's joint sheriff-coroner offices.
Last December, the county's chief medical examiner, Dr. Bennet Omalu, alleged that the county sheriff interfered with his investigations. As the Sacramento Bee put it, "Hands chopped off bodies; corpses left to deteriorate; doctors pressured to classify officer-involved deaths as accidents rather than homicides: San Joaquin's two forensic pathologists resigned in recent days over what they said was intolerable interference by Sheriff-Coroner Steve Moore." The allegations are troubling.
An investigation by the state Assembly said the allegations "call into question the integrity of the fundamental checks and balances of our criminal-justice system, as these medical determinations are often the basis for whether...charges filed." Indeed. Moore has denied the allegations. KQED paraphrased him saying that, "Determining cause of death—what killed a person—is the purview of the forensic pathologist...but he has the final say on determining the manner."
But just from a good policy standpoint, shouldn't a medical professional should be the one to make the final determination on the cause of death?
Currently, sheriffs—who have an official, vested interest in these cases, especially regarding officer-involved shootings—make the final cause-of-death determinations. The current system is an outrageous conflict of interest, writes Steven Greenhut.
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