Two pathologists have offered to rescind their resignations if the county will split the coroner’s office away from the Sheriff’s jurisdiction.
Sheriff’s spokesman Deputy David Konecny made that announcement on Friday.
Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Bennet Omalu and medical pathologist Dr. Susan Parson had voiced their objections to Sheriff Steve Moore allegedly interfering with their autopsy examinations and determining the cause of death in his role as Sheriff/Coroner as required by law, arguing that he is not a certified medical doctor and should not make those determinations. They had submitted their resignations during the last week, first that of Dr. Parson followed on Dec. 5 by Dr. Omalu.
Santa Clara County pathologists made the same case against their Sheriff in August of 2016. That eventually led to the splitting the Sheriff-Coroner’s responsibilities in a decision left up to their county board of supervisors as it will be in San Joaquin County. Sheriff Moore concluded there would be an added cost for San Joaquin County for additional personnel. The Santa Clara split reportedly cost that county $825,000 to make the change due to necessary new administrative positions. The Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office benefitted from a captain, lieutenant and a sergeant returning to their former law enforcement duties.
Seventeen of California’s 58 counties have separate offices for the Sheriff and the Coroner.
Sheriff Moore said Friday night by phone that the issue appears to be who is responsible as prescribed by law to determine the manner of death – the Sheriff – versus the medical cause of death. Moore has headed the coroner’s office for the past 10 plus years. He believes his office has done a good job in meeting those responsibilities and will continue to do so.
“Recently we have been making improvements in the Coroner’s Office by building a new morgue and adding two deputy sheriff/coroner investigators. If it would be the will of the people to separate the two offices, I would not stand in their way,” he said. “My responsibility is to follow the will of the people.”
One example in the cause of death is having a neighbor missing a next-door friend for several days and seeing him through a window in his house, lying on the floor with an obvious single gunshot wound to his head and patrol deputies are called to the scene to investigate. His body is sent to the morgue in French Camp awaiting the medical examiners’ autopsy after the deputy sheriff/coroners conclude their primary investigation of the death.
“When the pathologist comes in to determine the cause of death, it is determined to be one of three things: suicide, homicide or an accidental death based on an investigation by a coroner’s deputy. The investigation concludes whether the man was possibly despondent or in bad health or had a gun he was unfamiliar with,” Moore said.
Looking at the angle of the wound would determine whether it was a homicide, a suicide or an accident – an accident could come from the deceased having purchased a new weapon that possibly fires when it is cocked. In a new gun, it could fire if an unfamiliar owner doesn’t clear the chamber of a live round when cleaning the weapon, he said.
“A forensic pathologist can have their ideas but it is not their decision – it is that of the coroner,” he said.
Moore has already stipulated that if there is going to be a review or an investigation of the charges by the pathologists that he has already pledged his full cooperation. He added that he has been involved in a family medical issue this week and has not been hiding from the press as some have suggested.