A Solano County judge took a big step this week toward clearing up a controversy involving perceived problems with autopsies performed in dozens of homicide cases.
At the center of the situation is the competency of Dr. Susan Hogan, the county’s chief pathologist from 2009 until she was fired in October 2013. Documents related to a then-secret Sheriff’s Office investigation into Hogan’s work – along with autopsy notes and diagrams – were not turned over to defense attorneys representing a man suspected of killing his ex-girlfriend in August 2012 in Vallejo.
That man’s trial was set to start this past week, but has been delayed.
The ripple effect has spread to all homicide cases for which Hogan performed the autopsy, including the cases against the men accused of killing Vallejo police officer James Capoot and Suisun City teen Genelle Renee Conway-Allen.
Judge Daniel Healy issued a stinging rebuke Monday that faults prosecutors and others for their actions – particularly in recent months but perhaps dating back several years.
One troubling aspect of Healy’s ruling centers on what the judge described as an organizational mindset among prosecutors and police that the pathologist should support their suspicions in homicide cases, rather than provide a neutral and unbiased determination of manner and cause of death.
The word “coersion” springs to mind.
Healy correctly notes that suspected shortcomings in Hogan’s autopsies have not been supported by an independent scientific review of her conclusions. That should be done immediately to help restore public confidence in findings that come out of the coroner’s office.
Beyond that is the larger issue of how the District Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office handle their legal obligations. Healy was pointed in his remarks. He wrote that their collective mishandling of evidence was “epic.”
District Attorney Donald du Bain has not commented publicly on the situation, citing ethical concerns related to pending cases. Sheriff Thomas Ferrara testified in the hearing that led to Monday’s ruling.
Healy in his ruling laid into the District Attorney’s Office for its poor implementation of a policy that essentially requires that all evidence in a case be turned over to defense attorneys in a timely manner. Prosecutors delegated some authority in this situation to county counsel. There’s some disagreement as to what county counsel’s recommendations were with regard to the Hogan investigation materials, but Healy indicates in his ruling that fault for nondisclosure primarily rests with prosecutors, although fault lies as well with others involved.
“Their abject failure to adequately handle and disclose these materials is troubling, and their public effort to blame each other for what was a joint obligation is nothing short of disgraceful,” Healy wrote.
We’re all on the outside looking in as these events unfold, but we agree with this assessment by Healy: He wrote that the disclosure problems did not arise as a result of a laudable policy, “but instead by a systematic failure on the part of the responsible government agencies to execute those policies effectively.”
More troubling still is an assessment by Healy that prosecutors and Sheriff’s Office officials to this day do not “recognize or assume any responsibility for their mishandling of these issues.”
“The prosecution does nothing but reveal its own obliviousness to its obligations under the law,” Healy wrote. “(A) policy has no value when prosecution’s deeds do not match its words. The defense in this case, other cases, this court and the public at large all deserve better.”
Amen to that.