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San Joaquin County DA calls for Sheriff’s Office to discontinue coroner role

Dr. Bennet Omalu, a volunteer associate clinical professor at the UC Davis, resigned Dec. 5 as chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County. He says the sheriff, Steve Moore, interfered in three forensic investigations to protect cops under scrutiny for the deaths of suspects.
Dr. Bennet Omalu, a volunteer associate clinical professor at the UC Davis, resigned Dec. 5 as chief medical examiner of San Joaquin County. He says the sheriff, Steve Moore, interfered in three forensic investigations to protect cops under scrutiny for the deaths of suspects. rbenton@sacbee.com

San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar announced Monday an ongoing investigation into the Sheriff’s Office sparked by two former pathologists’ allegations of grave misconduct, and recommended the county sheriff and coroner roles be separated.

Memos from Drs. Bennet Omalu and Susan Parson made public last week alleged Sheriff-Coroner Steve Moore pressured the physicians to rule officer-involved deaths as “accidents” and left bodies in the morgue for weeks on end without cause.

A San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office sergeant also ordered at least five corpses’ hands cut off for identification purposes, Omalu said, despite the bodies having been positively identified by family members after the subjects died at home.

Parson resigned Nov. 27, while Omalu did so on Dec. 5. The two notified the district attorney of the alleged misconduct several months ago, at which point Salazar’s office began looking into alternative structures used in other California counties.

Salazar’s announcement came hours after protesters marched through downtown Stockton to the San Joaquin County Courthouse. Led by Dionne Smith-Downs, who challenged the coroner’s report after her 16-year-old son James Rivera Jr. was fatally shot by police in 2010, the protesters called on Moore to resign and an independent investigation to be conducted into the sheriff’s office.

Omalu and Parson’s union representative said Friday the doctors would consider withdrawing their resignations if the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors separated the sheriff and coroner’s offices. Salazar called for an independent committee to analyze other models used around the state and formally recommend one to the five-person board.

In Santa Clara County, where Salazar and her understudies spent a day observing operations, the sheriff and coroner’s departments were split last year after similar allegations of law enforcement officials interfering in medical determinations. Personnel changes from dividing the two offices cost the county nearly $850,000.

The San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors unanimously rejected Rev. Bob Hailey’s pleas to dissolve the joint system in 2005 after then-sheriff Baxter Dunn’s resigned amid a federal corruption probe and delayed classification of a jail inmate choked to death by his deputies.

“When you’ve got a sheriff who’s got to take care of his men, then that’s what he’s gonna do,” Hailey told The Record at the time. “That’s too much power for one individual. No man should have that kind of power unless he can stand up to the truth.”

The California Medical Association and San Joaquin County Medical Society have also demanded the coroner and sheriff’s offices be separated. Moore told The Record he would be open to relinquishing coroner duties but stood by his performance in the role since he was first elected in 2006.

Benjy Egel: 916-321-1052, @BenjyEgel

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