Judge issues sweeping order related to Solano autopsy documents

By From page A1 | February 21, 2014

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 [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jsullivandr.

Jess Sullivan

Jess has covered the criminal justice system in Solano County for several years. He was an embedded reporter in Iraq in 2003.

Discussion | 22 comments

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  • Fairfield needs to know...February 20, 2014 - 8:52 pm

    What a can of worms. Who hired her? Who are the deputies involved?

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  • The MisterFebruary 21, 2014 - 6:14 am

    Thank you, Dan Healy. And shame on the other judges for their efforts to cover this up. And much more shame on the Sheriff, Tom Ferrara, for not cleaning house when he took over as sheriff. And shame on DA du Bain for every trial you won with the help of the crooked Sheriff's Office. An election is coming up... and I hope that honesty and integrity can be restored. But that's not enough... this needs investigated and prosecutions need to be sought. Perhaps the new sheriff in town can do that.

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  • Slaytanic213February 21, 2014 - 8:51 am

    What judges have tried to cover this up? Where does it say any judges were involved...

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  • The MisterFebruary 21, 2014 - 9:06 am

    Second paragraph: "Judge Daniel Healy ordered that most of the Hogan documents, almost all kept under tight wraps in the past two weeks by other judges,..."

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  • my2centsFebruary 21, 2014 - 7:26 am

    After painfully reading through the subject/verb agreement and syntax errors in this story, I can't help but smell politics as the underlying, motivating force in this whole controversy. All the usual suspects are aligned, including the DR, which is nothing more than a pawn in this "house of cards." In a county where most litigants do not have the resources to appeal, judicial power and abuse of discretion goes unchecked. And justice and democracy are the casualties of this absolute power.

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  • Rich GiddensFebruary 21, 2014 - 8:01 am

    All I can say is ''this is huge!". So the District Attorney is couching witness testimony, altering and illegally changing findings and evidence, falsely prosecuting poor people, wasting resources, lying, perjuring, withholding ''Brady'' evidence, hiding witnesses----and many other County DA, Sheriff's and County legal counsel are involved too. Mr. Jess Sullivan!----you deserve a pay raise and a Pulitzer Prize for your hard work! Mr. Sullivan works very hard to pull case documents and do the research along with sitting through hours and hours of hearings. I believe we are obliged and owe him a debt of gratitude! Now surely, the attorneys, ACLU and the Federal Justice Department must intervene. I believe the US Justice Department should investigate. If what Mr. Sullivan has written is true, then the US Attorney should prefer charges of Obstruction of Justice and wholesale Civil Rights violations of the 6th and 14th Amendment as a minimum against all who entered into what appears to be a conspiracy against many people.

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  • JusticeFebruary 21, 2014 - 8:01 am

    I hope Ferrera and his office are sued. He has abused his power long enough. We the people have the power to end his career. Anyone with law enforcment experience should run against him. As far as duBain goes, he and his deputies should all be reported to the state bar for investigation into disbarment. Ferrera and duBain are like puppeteers, they pull the strings and there folks jump. Terry Ray is the dirtiest prosecutor in that office, is at the heart of this whole investigatiion AND was duBains choice for chief deputy. They all must go.

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  • Rich GiddensFebruary 21, 2014 - 8:21 am

    A massive protest / demonstration at the courthouse and lodged protests to the County Supes along with the horrible State government are in good order now. In my opinion all of the cast of scoundrels in this have a foul stench.

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  • LoraFebruary 21, 2014 - 10:47 am

    This is a great opportunity to do a story on the Brady policy that Don du Bain fought hard to bring to Solano County. Anyone interested?

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  • Rich GiddensFebruary 21, 2014 - 10:45 pm

    With all due respect Mrs. DuBain, a ''Brady policy'' already exists! It's called legal precedence and case law that was ultimately decided by the Federal US Supreme Court--- ''Brady v. Maryland'' and its being violated everyday by somebody who doesn't respect the law and the US Constitution! Take a big guess who! But don't worry--you will get visiting rights to see him on Sundays.

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  • General Fadi BasemFebruary 23, 2014 - 7:21 pm

    Lora: Sure I'm interested in hearing about the Brady policy that Mr. DuBain fought hard to bring to Solano County. Why don't you provide some preliminary information to serve as a wedge to uncover more information? That would be very helpful. Looking forward to your further contribution.

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  • O'rileysFebruary 21, 2014 - 10:57 am

    How long has this been going on? and what make you think your right?

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  • discouragedFebruary 21, 2014 - 12:46 pm

    Everyone needs to file a complaint with the state bar. Feds need to be involved. Everyone file have this investigated.

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  • Skeptic ScroogeFebruary 21, 2014 - 4:05 pm

    What's important is the recordings done to preserve the integrity of the initial evidence, which otherwise would be unavailable when all of Hogans autopsy results get thrown out. A new pathologist hired by anyone can look at the video to make their own judgement. So the child rapist strangler still gets executed.

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  • Rich GiddensFebruary 21, 2014 - 5:13 pm

    Thats not true either because if you have 2 legally admissible autopsy reports that are contradictory in their findings, the burden of proof is not met and the law says the exculpatory one is solely the one the jury must consider. If Solano County hadn't entered into a conspiracy to alter findings and coach testimony then all of this would be moot!

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  • George Guynn, JrFebruary 22, 2014 - 12:00 pm

    Does the waste of money and abuse of citizens' rights in Solano County ever end? Apparently not!!!! Thanks Jess Sullivan for writing this article!

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  • Curious ObserverFebruary 24, 2014 - 3:00 pm

    I have read the collection of articles on the Susan Hogan debacle, the many comments posted by concerned citizens, the concerns of the few regarding the Sheriff’s Office. Most the comments appear to be on the negative side, so to play devil’s advocate I would suggest a more objective review. As I read the many articles it appears that representatives of the District Attorney’s Office informed Sheriff Ferrara of a possible performance issue on the part of the Pathologist earlier this year. Since the Pathologist appears to have worked there many years, Sheriff Ferrara who just took office this year was not the Sheriff when she was hired. However, it appears that once Sheriff Ferrara was informed about this concern, he ordered an investigation be conducted to determine the legitimacy of the concerns. That to me does not sound like mismanagement. That sounds like a reasonable decision to determine if, in fact, there was any wrong doing by an employee. To the people who are indicating a cover-up, personnel matters are confidential. Regardless of the people who feel differently, the Sheriff’s Office (or any other Civil Service department) cannot comment on them without a judicial order. It is also the responsibility of the County to argue for that confidentiality on behave of the employee. So what the few perceive as an attempt to cover up the information is probably the county following procedures in these types of matters. In this case, the information was released through the judicial process, not Jess Sullivan breaking the story. Praise has been heaped on the judges for releasing the information and shame has been leveled at Sheriff Ferrara for not cleaning house when he took over. Isn’t that exactly what Sheriff Ferrara did when he learned of the potential issue with the Pathologist? By the virtue of Sheriff Ferrara ordering the investigation, he discovered issues that needed to be addressed. And because of the investigation, Sheriff Ferrara provided transparency of an issue, which again, was already present when he took over the Sheriff’s Office. For without the investigation into this matter, this information may never have come to light. So while a few are pointing the finger at Sheriff Ferrara for this mess, it seems to me we might want to praise Sheriff Ferrara for his integrity in uncovering an issue that, as by what has been reported, may require additional litigation in many cases. Isn't that what we want in a Sheriff, someone who has the courage to stand up and identify a mistake may have been discovered, and then allow for a fair trial to be conducted for those accused? As stated before, personnel matters are confidential. What we are reading in the press may be factual but it is certainly one sided and statements can be written and interpreted many ways. Let’s not judge a person or a department on what is printed in the press. There is an avenue to fairly address these issues. It is called the Grand Jury. I can only assume that there has already been changes made within the Sheriff’s Office to address the issues identified in the internal investigation. Let us allow a group of individuals who are sworn to objectively review these issues address the procedures and not a group of individuals who may not be aware of civil service rules and procedures, or have their own agendas.

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  • SolanoCitizenFebruary 24, 2014 - 3:39 pm

    Finally, a balanced and rational comment! Yes, it is true that Hogan's personnel file remains confidential until it is deemed necessary to reveal its content by the city attorney's office that there might be a problem. Let me underscore City Attorney NOT the DA. they are two separate entities. Yes, there are a myriad of county officials involved in this. The Sheriff's office along with the DA's office, unfortunately, are the ones being thrown under the bus for doing the right thing. It is also unfortunate that the Public Defender's office are opportunists but somehow we should not be surprised. They have rapist and killers to protect. I suppose they will jump on whatever chance they can to see to it they get the best results for their office which might not be what's best for people. Additionally, you are also correct that there are a few people who erroneously jump to the conclusions they wish for because it serves some self serving purpose. We should all try to keep an open mind until all the facts come out. This advice includes the judges involved in hearing these matters.

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  • The MisterFebruary 24, 2014 - 4:46 pm

    Of course the way this exploded on to the scene is when our bad actor refused to testify in court. I certainly don't recall a headline where Sheriff Ferrara exposed these problems to his constituents and the courts. I guess it didn't happen that way.

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  • SolanoCitizenFebruary 24, 2014 - 5:06 pm

    Mister, I think what you are missing is 1) You DON'T know that Ferrara knew Hogan was a problem and sat on his hands. You are purely speculating. 2) It seems to escape you that there is a very long red-tape process to fire a county employee and these policies that forbid Ferrara to divulge what's in said employee's file to constituents are not made up by Ferrara. Perhaps, the rules governing how a bad county employee get fired or at minimum exposed should be looked into.

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  • The MisterFebruary 24, 2014 - 7:31 pm

    Really? But Curious Observer just told us that when Sheriff Ferrara took office, he did clean house, investigate and learn of the potential issue with the Pathologist. So either he was going to do nothing or he was going to do something but just didn't get to it before the Pathologist got called to testify in court. Additionally, there is no "very long red-tape process" when a county employee breaks the law. The law-breaker is put on suspension and not allowed access to his or her workplace. Firing can come later... but the continuing damage is stopped. That did not happen.

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  • SolanoCitizenFebruary 24, 2014 - 8:46 pm

    Mister, curious observer never said Ferrara cleaned house when he took office. What CO said was when the issue of Hogan came to his attention and he acted on it. Additionally, where did you get your information that Hogan broke the law? Yes, I agree, law breakers are put on suspension, etc...but the aligations are that Hogan's quality of work and competency are in question. Please don't kid yourself, if there are concerns over a county employee's work performance, work quality or competency, you can rest assured it is a long process to get rid of them and, to boot, you might get sued if you're successful at ridding the bad employee for any number of reasons they will throw up on the wall in an effort to see what sticks. My guess is you have no idea how county HR policies work. Glad to enlighten you though :-).

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