VALLEJO — The growing controversy about the Solano County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office was ratcheted up Thursday with a judge making an exceptional order about more than 1,000 pages of documents concerning dozens of homicide autopsies and the doctor who performed them – Dr. Susan Hogan.
Judge Daniel Healy ordered that most of the Hogan documents, almost all kept under tight wraps in the past two weeks by other judges, be made available to prosecutors and every defense attorney in the Solano County Public Defender’s Office and their counterparts in the Alternate Defender’s Office.
The order came after Healy’s review of the documents and will enable a hearing Healy set for Feb. 27 to give prosecutors, deputy public defenders, lawyers for the county and a lawyer for Hogan time to get a handle on what impact the documents may have on at least 37 homicides in the county in recent years.
“I am doing this to provide the maximum amount of light with the minimum amount of heat,” Healy said of the documents at the center of the controversy.
That “light” includes revelations that at least some autopsies were recorded, and indications that Hogan’s interpretation of some autopsy results were changed after she met with prosecutors and authorities.
A prosecutor conceded there may still be more documents about the Sheriff-Coroner’s Office that need to be shared with defense attorneys but events in the past two weeks evolved so quickly he was not able to figure out if everything had been released.
Healy told the prosecutor it was obvious from reading the documents that some staff in the District Attorney’s Office knew of the Hogan problem while other staff did not.
Chief Deputy Public Defender Oscar Bobrow said it would be best if District Attorney Donald du Bain attended next week’s hearing and explained who knew what and when did they know it.
Included in the Hogan documents are 11 transcripts of meetings between top Sheriff’s Office officials and top staff in the District Attorney’s Office in which the primary topic of discussion was concerns about Hogan’s competency and the quality of work she was using in her autopsies.
Healy raised concerns that some of the documents involved meetings about specific autopsies. The meetings attended by Hogan, top Sheriff’s Office officials, prosecutors and police came after autopsies in which Hogan deemed cause of death was not homicide, but before she had submitted an official final autopsy report. In some cases, Hogan flip-flopped after the meetings and deemed cause of death to be homicide.
Healy questioned how the integrity of science and medicine of a coroner can be affected and changed by police and investigators trying to alter perceptions. Healy said that it appeared from the documents that the sort of meeting between police and doctors doing autopsy may be routine. Healy also raised concerns that the meetings involve a witness for a homicide case, Hogan, were not to be detailed or revealed to defense attorneys.
The lengthy hearing revolved around a case in which a very drunk Vallejo woman was found dead in a motel room in 2012. Hogan initially deemed the death to be suffocation, perhaps from vomiting after passing out.
Her boyfriend was arrested but then released and murder charges were dropped. Hogan later changed her mind about the cause of death. A year later, the boyfriend was arrested in West Virginia and brought back to California.
The defendant’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Meenha Lee, said Thursday that she just learned of a meeting between Hogan, Sheriff’s Office staff, prosecutors and Vallejo police that occurred before her client was arrested a second time. His trial is set to start in two weeks.
The probable cause hearing last year for the suffocation homicide featured Hogan being questioned about the woman’s cause of death. The hearing also included Lee asking Hogan about an ongoing investigation by top Sheriff’s Office staff about her work. Hogan testified she knew nothing about any investigation. A month later, she was abruptly terminated with top Sheriff’s Office staff insisting she had retired. In an email sent later to a prosecutor, Hogan complained about being “publicly humiliated” at the probable cause hearing and pinned part of the blame for her being fired on the prosecutor in Lee’s case.
The Hogan documents also reveal that the Sheriff-Coroner’s Office may routinely record autopsies. Those recordings have never been shared with defense attorneys.
Healy said he reviewed transcripts of five of those recordings, which involved cases in Fairfield, Vacaville and Vallejo. Whether or not the failure of prosecutors to share the recordings with defense attorneys in homicide cases is a question that could affect scores of Solano County homicide cases – including cases where convictions and sentencing has already occurred.
Healy wondered aloud why the Sheriff-Coroner’s Office could possibly maintain a repository of autopsy recordings and referenced President Richard Nixon’s saving of the Watergate tapes.
The controversy comes just a few weeks before Sheriff Tom Ferrara and du Bain will learn if anyone decides to run against them in the upcoming June election.
Reach Jess Sullivan at 427-6919 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jsullivandr.