To hear it from Bennet Omalu, the famed forensic pathologist, the coroner’s office in San Joaquin County, Calif., was a house of horrors. Hands were cut off dead bodies without warning. Corpses were left to decompose in the morgue for weeks on end. Doctors were pressured to turn homicides involving law enforcement officers into accidental deaths.
Omalu, whose pioneering research into brain injuries among football players was portrayed in the Will Smith movie “Concussion,” resigned as the county’s chief medical examiner on Tuesday, saying conditions created by Sheriff-Coronor Steve Moore had become so intolerable that he worried about “aiding and abetting the unlicensed practice of medicine.”
His four-page resignation letter, published by the Sacramento Bee, accused Moore of interfering with his medical opinions and trying to “control me as a physician.” It came just days after Omalu’s fellow pathologist, Susan Parson, announced she was leaving the coroner’s office over what she called Moore’s “intrusion into physician independence.” Along with their resignation letters, the pair turned over dozens of pages of documents detailing their concerns to the Bee, the Associated Press and other local media.
“The sheriff does whatever he feels like doing as the coroner, in total disregard of bioethics, standards of practice of medicine and the generally accepted principles of medicine,” Omalu wrote in an August memo that was cited by the Bee.
“The sheriff was using his political office as the coroner to protect police officers whenever someone died while in custody or during arrest,” he wrote in another memo, according to KQED. “I had thought that this was initially an anomaly, but now, especially beginning in 2016, it has become routine practice.”
A spokesman for Moore, who has served as sheriff since 2007, didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday night. In a statement posted to the sheriff’s office Facebook page, Moore said he was sad to learn that Omalu had resigned and denied allegations that he had interfered with forensic investigations.
“That has never happened,” Moore wrote. “I would never try to control, influence, or change the opinions of Dr. Omalu or any pathologist working on a case, but I still have the responsibility of making the final determination.”
In her resignation letter last week, Parson said Moore had made the coroner’s office “personally unbearable and professionally unsustainable.” The sheriff created a hostile work environment, inserting himself into the day-to-day duties of physicians and trying to steer their professional findings, she wrote.
Omalu, who has worked for the county since 2007, said in his letter: “I must unfortunately stand by and support what Dr. Parson has most succinctly and precisely said.”
Moore’s alleged meddling started in Omalu’s early days on the job, according to his letter. As early as 2007, Omalu recalled, the sheriff prevented him from attending crime scenes, even in complicated or unusual cases. In the past two years, he said, it got worse.
On five occasions, Moore ordered technicians to cut the hands off bodies and send them to a forensics lab to be identified, Omalu and Parsons wrote in documents provided to local media. None of the pathologists in the office were notified, they said. In some cases, they had already determined the dead person’s identity; in others, they said, police could have figured it out using investigative practices.
“In my opinion, taking out the hands of these cases, was a form of body mutilation, which we should not be doing,” Omalu wrote in a May memo quoted by the Bee and KQED.
Moore addressed the issue in his statement Wednesday. “In very rare occasions, when a person cannot be identified, and when all other methods of identifying a person are not available or cannot be utilized, the Coroner’s office will remove a digit or hand and send it to the California Department of Justice to be processed at their lab,” he wrote. “At all times, the decedents’ families are in our thoughts, and we want to make sure we have identified the right person.”
According to the Bee, Omalu and Parson accused Moore and his staff of leaving bodies unaccounted-for in the morgue. Moore’s office would routinely take weeks or months to complete coroner’s paperwork and would frequently fail to turn over basic information, such as where the bodies were found, the physicians said.
As a result, Omalu and Parson said, corpses would decompose before doctors could perform autopsies, and families would have to wait to see the bodies.
“This goes way outside and beneath the standards of practice of medicine in the State of California and across the world,” Omalu wrote, according to the Bee.
Omalu also alleges that the sheriff repeatedly pressured him to reclassify certain deaths as accidents rather than homicides when police were involved. In one instance highlighted by KQED, a man was killed during a confrontation with police in Stockton, Calif. Omalu determined that he had died of asphyxiation and blunt force trauma, and ruled the death a homicide. The sheriff, however, certified the death an accident, according to KQED.
On another occasion, according to the Bee, Omalu ruled a man’s death a homicide after he died in an altercation with three officers who tried to subdue him. Omalu said trauma had killed the man, but Moore reportedly called him into his office and told him to change the finding.
Moore defended his decisions. “I’m charged with the responsibility to establish the manner of death and I do that based on the totality of the circumstances,” he told KQED, “up to and including the autopsy report provided by the doctor and the investigative report done by the coroner’s investigators.”
Omalu wrote in his resignation letter that he had become “frigidly afraid” that working alongside Moore would jeopardize his medical license. He said he and Parson had expressed their concerns to Moore, only to be “dismissed” and told “we must do anything and everything he asks us to do, even when we considered his actions acting against our standards of practice and the generally accepted principles of medicine.”