The case is one of dozens of death investigations across the country, including more than two dozen in Los Angeles and San Diego counties, that The Times found were complicated or upended when transplantable body parts were taken before a coroner’s autopsy was performed.
In multiple cases, coroners have had to guess at the cause of death. Wrongful-death and medical malpractice lawsuits have been thwarted by early tissue harvesting. A death after a fight with police remains unsettled. The procurement process caused changes to bodies that medical examiners mistook as injuries or abuse. In at least one case, a murder charge was dropped.
Organ procurement before an investigation has long been legal, provided the coroner agreed. The motivation was to increase the number of hearts, kidneys and other vital organs needed to extend the lives of Americans waiting for transplants. To raise those numbers, California and other states over the last decade passed laws requiring coroners and medical examiners to “cooperate” with the companies to “maximize” the number of organs and tissues taken for transplant. Procurement companies’ lobbyists helped to write the legislation and push it into law.
In a handful of states the laws go even further, giving the companies the power to force coroners to delay autopsies until they have harvested the body parts.