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A broken system forces forensic pathologist to resign

In December, Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who first described concussion-related brain damage in professional football players, resigned his position as forensic pathologist for San Joaquin County, California.

Omalu published papers on chronic traumatic encephalopathy in 2005 and 2006 while working as a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh. The NFL immediately recognized a threat to its highly lucrative sport and subjected him to personal and professional attacks. Omalu describes the period after the publication of his papers as “dark and difficult days.”

When he moved to California in 2007, he was “running away from Pittsburgh and felt homeless, hopeless and afraid,” Omalu said. In his letter of resignation, he thanked “the good people of San Joaquin County (who) offered me a home and gave me hope.” He’d planned to stay for the rest of his career.

Omalu’s plans were thwarted by California’s politicized death investigation system, which is peculiar to say the least.

In 50 of 58 California counties, the offices of sheriff and coroner are merged. One person wears both hats. It doesn’t take much brainpower to recognize that such a system invites a conflict of interest, particularly when somebody dies in custody or during a fight with the police.

Some sheriff/coroners work within the system and allow forensic pathologists to conduct investigations and arrive at cause and manner-of-death determinations without interference. These people avoid an actual conflict of interest, but not the appearance of one.

Other sheriff/coroners use their statutory authority to corrupt a death investigation system that should be independent and unbiased.

Within two months, San Joaquin County lost both its forensic pathologists. Dr. Sue Parson resigned in November, blaming Sheriff/Coroner Steve Moore. She said Moore created an “utterly untenable work environment” by “inserting himself into how and when Dr. Omalu and I perform our medical duties” and by “attempts to control and influence our professional judgment and conclusions.”

Omalu wrote in his resignation letter that he had seen Moore “humiliate and bully Dr. Parson.” Sheriff Moore, Omalu said, stated that he and Parson worked for him and “must do anything and everything he asked.”

He said that Moore would not permit him to attend crime scenes even when the death was complicated or unusual – which is standard forensic pathology practice. He said that when his professional opinions and testimony were not to Moore’s liking, Moore retaliated. He said Moore asked him to change his autopsy report and findings in the case of an individual who died during an altercation with police. When Omalu refused, Moore made the changes himself.

When a fleeing suspect died after being subjected to 31 hits with a Taser, Omalu was told that the man had been tasered “once or twice” and that no computer record of weapon discharges was available. A deputy district attorney provided Omalu with the computer record two years later. Sheriff Moore, a source said, had the report the day after the man died.

Media reports quote a memo from Omalu that reads, “The sheriff was using his political office as the coroner to protect police officers whenever someone died while in custody or during arrest.”

Moore denies that he interfered with forensic pathology investigations. In any case, he says, he has the authority to establish the manner of death and he isn’t required to explain his decisions to the doctors.

Moore is correct. The state of California gives him that authority. Moore is up for re-election in 2018, and Omalu is out of a job.

Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland. Email her at chuser@durangoherald.com.