Bill Watch

Gov. Brown Vetoes Bill to Address Sheriff-Coroner Controversy

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

On Tuesday, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed SB 1303, a bill introduced in response to allegations from forensic pathologists that San Joaquin County’s sheriff-coroner was interfering with death investigations in order to protect officers.

While the majority of other counties nationwide have a separate coroner’s office, in most of California’s 58 counties, the local sheriff also serves as county coroner, creating what critics believe to be a serious conflict of interest.

Last year, two medical examiners, including renowned forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, resigned from their posts, saying that San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore—who also serves as the county’s coroner, despite having no medical experience—pressured them to reclassify homicides as accidents when officers were involved in the fatalities, and acted in other ways that undermined death investigations.

Omalu’s high-profile resignation stirred up questions about an officer-involved death that Moore ruled an accident. In 2008, a CHP officer tried to pull over a man who was speeding on his motorcycle. The man, Daniel Lee Humphreys, tried to flee, crashed, and attempted to climb over a divider, at which point the officer shocked him with a Taser.

Moore reportedly withheld evidence that the officer shocked Humphreys 31 times before the man died. The forensic pathologist, who conducted the autopsy, was reportedly told that Humphreys was only shocked twice, and the death was ruled an accident.

This April, an independent audit concluded that San Joaquin County should remove the sheriff from death investigations, and instead appoint an independent medical examiner to avoid conflicts of interest.

San Joaquin County’s Board of Supervisors agreed with the audit, pulled the coroner system from within the sheriff’s department, and created an independent medical examiner’s office.

Tuesday’s vetoed bill, which was introduced by Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a pediatrician, and Sen. Cathleen Galgiani (D-Stockton), would have required six non-charter counties with more than 500,000 residents to either break up the sheriff-coroner system and establish a medical examiner’s office, or else refer autopsies that may present a conflict of interest, to a different county that has a medical examiner.

The six counties affected would have been Contra Costa, Kern, Riverside, San Joaquin (although the county addressed the problem before the legislation landed on Governor Brown’s desk), Sonoma, and Stanislaus.

“Autopsy reports provide critical information in determining the cause and manner of death and we must have the confidence in their accuracy,” Sen. Pan said when he introduced SB 1303. “The public and juries need to trust that they will receive accurate and objective information to make the correct verdict on a criminal case.”

Governor Brown declined to force independent autopsies on the six large counties, however.

“Counties have several options when delivering coroner services to the public,” Brown said in his veto message. “This decision is best left to the discretion of local elected officials who are in the best position to determine how their county offices are organized.”

1 Comment

  • With all the uproar over “conflict of interests”, bias and illegal behavior when it comes to anything related to law enforcement, it’s shocking to see the lack of interest by our legislature and cold response by the governor. It would seem like a no-brainer, that in the 21st century it makes common sense for the coroners office to be separate and independent of the elected county sheriff’s office.

    We sure don’t live in the time off Sheriff Andy and Mayberry, so why would the governor wave off such an important issue relating to the separation and independence of two very critical county offices? A clear example of the folks we elect not caring about the will of the people or what’s best for them, but instead worrying about pushing their own personal agendas and staying in office by any means necessary.

    I guess because it’s not press worthy, headline gathering or vote gathering would be the simple answers.

    Build that train Governor Brown and lackys, and raise the gas tax and DMV fees, all without voter support or consent.

    Politics…an example of human behavior at it’s second worst, with outright murder being the worst example in my humble opinion.

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