Jackson Bill To Increase Public Confidence in Autopsies Heads to the Governor

August 25, 2016

SACRAMENTO – A bill jointly authored by Dr. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) and Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) to ensure autopsies are conducted only by licensed physicians and forensic autopsy reports are accurate and unbiased passed off the Senate floor today on a 38-1 vote and is now headed to the Governor.

Jackson is jointly authoring SB 1189 following the discovery in 2015 that a number of autopsies were done at the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s office by non-physicians while the then-Medical Examiner, Dr. Jon Smith, was on vacation.

“At the Ventura County Medical Examiner’s office, it was discovered that a number of autopsies were done by unlicensed medical staff while the then-Medical Examiner was on vacation,” said Jackson. “This has caused understandable distress and anger to the families, eroded the public’s trust, and raised a number of important questions about how we conduct postmortem exams. This bill takes an important step toward clarifying current law on this issue by ensuring that only licensed physicians can conduct these examinations and that they are done with great integrity and at the highest standard of care.”

“For many families, autopsies are an important part of the process of seeking peace of mind after a loved one has passed,” said Dr. Pan, a pediatrician and Senator representing the Sacramento region. “But autopsies are also a critical component of gaining valuable medical knowledge that can save lives. When autopsies are not performed by the medical experts and pathologists who are specially trained to use surgical techniques, microscopy, laboratory analysis and medical records, the public loses out on the opportunity to better understand and discover diseases as well as identify public health emergencies and health hazards.”

Senate Bill 1189 would require a forensic autopsy to be conducted only by a licensed physician or surgeon and defines such autopsies as a medical examination to determine cause of death. Recent amendments would allow trained county personnel, under the supervision of a physician or a coroner, to take blood, urine or vitreous samples for the purpose of crime scene investigations.

Additionally, under the bill, if law enforcement personnel was directly involved with the custody of an individual and that person died in their care, they would not be allowed inside the autopsy room during the performance of the autopsy.  Further, the bill requires police reports, crime scene photos and videos or other information that is in the possession of law enforcement be made available to the medical examiner prior to the completion of the death investigation.

Jackson has also separately requested that the California Medical Board, the state agency that licenses doctors, investigates complaints and disciplines those who violate the law, conduct an investigation and take appropriate action against the former Ventura County Medical Examiner, Dr. Jon Smith, as well as any staff who have conducted procedures or an autopsy without having the training or license to do so.