It should be a relic of California’s provincial past that one person can serve as both sheriff and coroner of a county. But as of this year, at least 41 of the state’s 58 counties still had such a setup – and the result, as we’ve seen in San Joaquin County this week, can be disturbing.
Steve Moore, the longtime sheriff-coroner of the Central Valley county, is facing accusations of gross – and we mean gross – malfeasance in the job he’s held for a decade.
Among the wildest charges: that he ordered the hands be cut off of five corpses and sent to a lab to determine the identities of the dead. No word yet why a round of fingerprints wouldn’t do.
Moore also allegedly allowed his staff to fall so far behind on paperwork that bodies were piling up in the morgue. In some cases, families had to wait months to claim their relatives, whose bodies had started decomposing.
Perhaps most damaging of all in this era of strained relations between police and the public, the county’s chief medical examiner, the nationally renown Dr. Bennet Omalu, says Moore asked him to change his findings from “homicide” to “accident” in three cases of people killed by cops.
“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,” Omalu wrote in a memo released this week, as reported by The Bee’s Benjy Egel, Anita Chabria and Ellen Garrison.
Omalu became famous for forcing the NFL to acknowledge its players were at risk of concussion-related brain injuries, known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, from years of getting hit in the head. His work was turned into the 2015 film “Concussion.”
On Tuesday, Omalu announced that he was resigning as chief medical examiner. His colleague and fellow forensic pathologist, Susan Parson, quit last week. Together, they released more than 100 pages of memos detailing their allegations against Moore, in addition to sending them to the Board of Supervisors.
The San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office is gathering information for a possible investigation – a necessary step to restore public trust. A previous sheriff, T. Baxter Dunn, served time for corruption charges.
Moore denies any wrongdoing. He defended himself on Facebook, saying “at no time did I attempt to control or influence professional judgment and conclusions.”
If the allegations do turn out to be true, it speaks to Moore’s arrogance in thinking he could get away with pushing around Omalu, who refused to be pushed around by the far more intimidating NFL.
But even if the allegations prove false, there’s still the potential for a conflict of interest with a sheriff who is also coroner. Already, California sheriffs oversee investigations into suspicious deaths, including those at the hands of their own deputies. To also put them in charge of overseeing pathologists who rule on the causes of those deaths opens the door to sheriffs interfering to clear their deputies. At the very least, the optics are bad.
As Dr. Reed Mellor, president of the San Joaquin County Medical Society, put it: “Physician independence is paramount to avoid improper influence.”
Some counties, such as Sacramento, have independently elected coroners or appointed coroners. It’s time to bring San Joaquin, and dozens of other California counties, into the 21st century.