People often ask me if there’s something innocuous enough that I’d be willing to let government do it. I always say no because if an entity can’t even be trusted to carve up cadavers what can you trust it with?
Two San Joaquin County, Calif., medical examiners have resigned in the past two weeks, alleging that Sheriff-Coroner Steve Moore pressured them to change their autopsy results for deaths in police custody. In other instances also involving deaths at the hands of police, they say, the sheriff ignored their conclusions completely.
Bennet Omalu, the chief medical examiner for the county, tendered his resignation on Nov. 28, as did a colleague, Susan Parson. (Notable aside: Omalu is the medical examiner who exposed the degenerative brain condition found in many former NFL players and was the inspiration for the movie “Concussion.”) Omalu was hired in 2007 to help professionalize and modernize the county medical examiner’s office. In his resignation letter, he said that Moore “has always made calculated attempts to control me as a physician and influence my professional judgement.”
Government coroners suffer the same conflict of interest as crime labs. In the case of the former the government is the coroner’s employer and in the case of the latter the government is the crime labs primary (and oftentimes only) customer. That being the case they have a vested interest in pleasing the government and oftentimes that is accomplished by helping it gets a conviction even if the accused party is innocent.
What makes the position of coroner especially bad is that it is often an elected position:
As it turns out, this is a fun little artifact of the coroner system, which the United States inherited from Britain. Coroners are often confused with medical examiners, but they are two very different positions, and they rarely overlap. A medical examiner is a doctor who performs autopsies after suspicious deaths. The county coroner is an elected position. In most states, you don’t need any medical training, police training or crime investigation training to run for the office. There are only a few states where the coroner must be a physician, and even in those states there’s a big loophole — if no doctor wants the office, anyone can run for it.
So the coroner is often a position filled by an individual who isn’t qualified to be a medical examiner tasked with the job of a medical examiner and influenced by other elements of the government to determine causes of death in a manner favorable to their agenda. What could possibly go wrong?
This is another example of the layers of redundancy built into the State. If somebody questions the accuracy of a law enforcer report on an incident that resulted in a death, that law enforcer can fall back on a coroner report that they helped write by manipulating the coroner. It provides “third-party” verification of the law enforcer’s story so everybody can wash their hands of the mess and move on to other things.