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New California bill could shake up the way autopsy reports are handled




Dr. Bennet Omalu stands by a diagram showing the results of his autopsy of Stephon Clark during a news conference at the Southside Christian Center on March 30, 2018 in Sacramento, California.
Dr. Bennet Omalu stands by a diagram showing the results of his autopsy of Stephon Clark during a news conference at the Southside Christian Center on March 30, 2018 in Sacramento, California.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The police killing of Stephon Clark, along with the two different autopsy results in that case, have brought attention to a new bill going through the California legislature. 

SB 1303 raises the question: Could police officials influence what a forensic expert's results might be? 

If passed, the bill would change the way six California counties, including Riverside, run these investigations. 

The author of the bill is state Sen. Richard Pan, who is also a physician. 

He had some thoughts on autopsy report discrepancies.

How could two autopsies come up with two different results?

Dr. Richard Pan: There’s always room for interpretation of the findings. You have bullet holes, toxicology reports and one has to look at the detail of the examination. The real challenge is, in most cases, the only autopsy done is done by the county. And we’ve seen incidents, particularly in San Joaquin County, where the sheriff-coroner in a law [enforcement] involved incident puts pressure on a forensic pathologist...and even changes the actual findings.

Why is it important to have a physician-level forensic pathologist perform an autopsy?

 

Dr. Pan: Coroners go back to King Richard the Lionheart, where you basically need a person to say, ‘Well, that person’s actually dead, so we can go after their estate’ [In other words], a lay person.

In the past hundred years, we’ve developed a science of how people die and how that occurred. That’s called forensic pathology. When you see “CSI” and all that science, part of that is what a forensic pathologist is trained in, so they can make a determination as to how the death actually happened. And that can lead to a criminal case…. That’s why it’s so important that these exams are independent.

You’re a doctor -- does that affect your effort to push this bill?

Dr. Pan: In my role as a legislator, I have fought for science-based policies. I think it’s important that experts are able to apply science, back-up their conclusions with facts and make that available to the public. We need to make sure that we’re making policy on science and same for the criminal justice system. If we have trust on the basis of facts, it’s a way for the community [to come together].

*​This interview has been edited for clarity