Scalia's death and lack of an autopsy bring out the conspiracy theorists

He was 79 with high blood pressure, and his health was deemed too precarious for shoulder surgery.

Yet the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is getting the full conspiracy theory treatment. For that, the blame starts with a Texas law that allows presiding judges without medical expertise to determine a cause of death and decide whether an autopsy is needed — even without viewing a body.

Add to the mix an ambiguous remark from the Texas millionaire who found the justice dead, a comment from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and speculation from conservative media figures.

Scalia was staying near the Mexican border at a remote Presidio County ranch owned by John Poindexter, who went looking for the justice when he didn't show up for breakfast Saturday morning. He found Scalia dead in his room.

"We discovered the judge in bed, a pillow over his head," Poindexter told the San Antonio Express-News.

Trump seized on the comment, taking it to mean that a pillow had been found over Scalia's face.

"It's a horrible topic, but they say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow," Trump said in an interview Monday with conservative radio host Michael Savage.

Savage said he wanted the death investigated to see whether it was an assassination. "This is going to be bigger and bigger and bigger. ... We need the equivalent of a Warren Commission; we need an immediate autopsy before the body is disposed of," he said.

No matter that Poindexter later clarified his remark. The pillow was between Scalia's head and the headboard, the Texas businessman told The Times on Tuesday.

Scalia looked peaceful, "almost as if a model had been put in the bed," he said.

After the discovery, the county sheriff and the U.S. Marshals Service arrived at Cibolo Creek Ranch. They found no signs of foul play, Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara told the Associated Press.

FULL COVERAGE: Supreme Court Justice Scalia dies at 79>>

It didn't help silence the conspiracy theorists when the Marshals Service said that Scalia had declined protection during his visit to the hunting ranch.

Media personality Alex Jones, who has supported other conspiracy theories, called for a murder investigation.

"I was the first to come out and say this should be a murder investigation, and they better not not do an autopsy," Jones said in a video on his Facebook page Tuesday. "Then he's found with a pillow over his face."

The leader of the conservative Americans for Legal Immigration PAC also called for an autopsy, including a toxicology report.

"Any time a head of state, member of Congress, or the most conservative member of the U.S. Supreme Court is found dead, an extensive autopsy and toxicology examination should be both immediate and mandatory," William Gheen, the group's president, said in a statement Sunday.

He noted that Scalia was loathed by many liberals and that his death could tilt the court's balance of power to the left.

"We do not contend there is a conspiracy, we contend that there should be no doubts, and the way authorities and the media are rushing conclusions will leave major doubts and legitimate concerns about a death that could lead to a radical political transformation of America to the left!" Gheen wrote.

Officials said Scalia's family did not want an autopsy. There was nothing to stop local authorities from doing one anyway had they deemed the death suspicious, but they didn't.

Scalia's cause of death was declared by a county judge in a phone call.

As unusual as that might sound — and as tantalizing as it might be to conspiracy theorists — it appears to be allowed under Texas law.

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Many Texas counties, like Presidio County, are too vast and sparsely populated to have their own medical examiner's offices, so Texas law requires either a county justice of the peace or a county judge to establish the cause and manner of death.

Since the county's two justices of the peace were not available to determine Scalia's cause of death, the job fell to Guevara, who was 60 miles away from the ranch when the justice was found.

Before deciding against an autopsy, Guevara spoke with Scalia's physician, who told her that Scalia had heart problems, high blood pressure and was recently deemed too weak to undergo shoulder surgery, she told the Associated Press. The family believed he died of natural causes, she said.

"I respected the wishes of the Scalia family. ... I did this based upon credible reports to me from law enforcement and from Justice Scalia's personal physician," Guevara said in a statement.

Bronson Tucker, an attorney for the Texas Justice Court Training Center, which trains justices of the peace, said that Presidio County officials appeared to have properly followed Texas law in deciding against an autopsy.

"The statute really gives the judge a lot of discretion in how they gather the information necessary to make that determination" of cause and manner of death, Tucker said. He added that while Scalia's stature might have made an autopsy a good idea, his importance did not translate to extra sway under state law.

Tucker said it was "not completely unusual" for judges to do death inquests by phone, especially in West Texas, where some judges might have to drive up to 200 miles round-trip.

"If you have somebody who's 80 years old, who's overweight, those are all factors" in deciding that a death is not worth an autopsy, said Tucker, who added that "a lot of times the judges face pressures from their counties because the autopsies are pretty expensive, and especially rural counties don't have a huge budget for things like that."

Had Scalia died in another state with stricter rules about death investigations, the conspiracy theories might never have had a chance to blossom.

But he died in Texas, where the conspiracy may live on for 25 years.

Under Texas law, that's how much time must pass before a death certificate is made available to the public.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 18, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Spotty news fuels plot views - Details surrounding Scalia's death bring out conspiracy theorists" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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