Medical science has progressed far enough, and diverged sufficiently from the duties of law enforcement, that the coroner should never be the sheriff of any California county. Unless, that is, the sheriff also has a medical degree.
Steve Moore does not. And after reading the accusations leveled by San Joaquin County’s chief medical examiner, we’re wondering if Moore is faithfully carrying out his duties as sheriff.
Chief medical examiner Dr. Bennet Omalu stated Moore asked him to change his findings from “homicide” to “accident” in three cases of people killed by law enforcement. Such requests are unacceptable and amply demonstrate why these duties must be separated.
Omalu became famous for forcing the NFL to acknowledge its players were at risk of chronic traumatic encephalopathy; Will Smith played him in the movie “Concussion.”
Tuesday, Omalu resigned, following his co-worker and fellow forensic pathologist Susan Parson who had quit the week before. Between them, they submitted some 110 pages of memos to the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors detailing serious allegations against Moore.
Now, the San Joaquin District Attorney’s Office is gathering information for a possible investigation – a necessary step if public trust in Moore is to be restored.
The sheriff went to Facebook to defend himself, saying “at no time did I attempt to control or influence professional judgment and conclusions.”
If Omalu’s allegations are true, it speaks to Moore’s arrogance to think he could get away with pushing around Omalu – who wasn’t cowed by the NFL.
Among the charges was that Moore ordered the hands cut off five corpses and sent to a lab to determine the identities of the dead. Why not send a technician to the morgue to take the fingerprints – with fingers and hands still attached?
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 begun to decompose.
“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 reported by The Sacramento Bee’s Benjy Egel, Anita Chabria and Ellen Garrison.
“The sheriff is interfering with the doctors’ ability to do their job and he is trying to influence their decisions,” said Patricia Hernandez, the union representative for both Omalu and Parson. “I would call it rogue mismanagement.”
Asking a medical examiner to alter the “cause of death” finding – without medical evidence – is an extremely serious issue. In an era of strained relations and mistrust between police and public, it’s the last thing any Sheriff’s Department needs.
What every sheriff in California needs is to let go of their coroner duties. California sheriffs oversee investigations into suspicious deaths, including those at the hands of their own deputies. To put them in charge of also overseeing pathologists who determine the causes of those deaths opens the door to interference. At the very least, it casts doubt on any finding, no matter the sheriff’s reputation.
As Dr. Reed Mellor, president of the San Joaquin County Medical Society, put it: “Physician independence is paramount to avoid improper influence.”
A few counties independently elect or appoint coroners. San Joaquin, Stanislaus and the other 40 California counties that combine the jobs should do the same.