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Sheriff-Coroner Split Is Rejected : Supervisors Make D.A. Responsible for Investigating Deaths in Custody

Times Staff Writer

In a move to resolve potential conflicts of interest in the Sheriff-Coroner’s Office, the Board of Supervisors Tuesday voted unanimously to have the district attorney perform the coroner’s role in deaths in which sheriff’s deputies are involved.

The supervisors ordered that the Sheriff-Coroner’s Office not be split in two, but that the district attorney direct investigations into deaths of County Jail inmates and of people in the custody of sheriff’s deputies. It also directed that an independent pathologist be retained for such probes.

“Now all we have to do is find someone,” Assistant Dist. Atty. Michael Capizzi said.

Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates scored a partial victory in the board’s vote to let him retain a consolidated department, but critics of the combined operations also achieved some success, with the shifting of control over controversial autopsies to the district attorney.

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Dozen Cases a Year

Supervisor Bruce Nestande said the new system would involve the district attorney in investigating “about a dozen--plus or minus--deaths a year” and such a small number did not justify the cost of separating the sheriff’s and coroner’s functions.

Gates said after the 4-0 vote (Supervisor Harriett Wieder was absent because of the death of her sister) that the five-month investigation of his office found that “we are doing a very thorough, efficient job in making decisions.”

Gates said the board “just ensured that that process continues to take place and proper checks and balances are there” in investigating jail and other deaths in custody.

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On a related issue, the board Tuesday ordered the solicitation of bids from pathologists on a contract to conduct autopsies for the county. Nestande said there were “no disparaging comments with respect to the integrity and the performance of the system” at present, but that seeking bids on the service would end any suspicion of impropriety.

For more than a decade, a partnership of three pathologists has retained without bidding the contract to perform autopsies.

Consensus on Contract

Acting County Administrative Officer Larry J. Holms, whose report on the sheriff-coroner operation was delivered to the supervisors April 30, also collected opinions from the sheriff, district attorney, prosecutors and defense attorneys on the performance of the current autopsy pathologists. They generally held that there was no problem, but that opening the contract to bidding was a good idea.

The question of potential conflicts of interest in the Sheriff-Coroner’s Office have been raised several times since the two offices were consolidated in 1971.

The supervisors ordered the study of the problem last December, after John Ray Stephenson died in the Orange County Jail in what was found to be a suicide. Gates confiscated Stephenson’s mental health records and turned them over to coroner’s officials despite the objections of county mental health workers at the jail that the records were confidential.

Nestande said the board action was designed to “resolve the conflict which exists with respect to a sheriff-coroner relationship when a police officer-involved death occurs.”

Holms’ report noted that when an inmate dies in jail or someone dies while in the custody of a sheriff’s deputy and the coroner investigates, essentially it is an agency investigating itself.

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The coroner investigates all violent, sudden and unusual deaths. Holms’ report said the cases involving potential conflicts of interest amount to less than 1% of the coroner’s caseload.

Nestande said the changes ordered by the supervisors “are not cosmetic but are of tremendous substance.” The sheriff and district attorney were directed to put the new system in writing and submit the document to the board within 60 days.

At the urging of Dist. Atty. Cecil Hicks, the district attorney’s office was given the option of using the Forensic Sciences Services Division of the Sheriff’s Department, rather than outside forensic specialists, to examine evidence and perform necessary laboratory tests in death cases involving sheriff’s deputies.

Stanton Has Reservations

Although he voted with the majority against splitting the Sheriff-Coroner’s Office into separate operations, Supervisor Roger Stanton said he still had doubts about consolidated operations.

“It is impossible to measure the temptation the present arrangement offers for lawsuits in some cases,” Stanton said. At his urging, the board agreed to have the county administrative office report on how the new system is working within a year.

In past controversies over jail deaths, survivors have filed lawsuits charging that the inmates died due to negligence on the part of sheriff’s deputies. Some of the suits have alleged criminal wrongdoing by the Sheriff’s Department.


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