March 1, 2023
Medical Examiner-Coroner’s Office
Brian Elias, PIO@coroner.lacounty.gov
Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner Releases Statement Underscoring Independent Approach to Death Investigations
The County of Los Angeles Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner released the following statement in response to assertions made based on a new report by UCLA’s Biocritical Studies Lab:
While the Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner (DMEC) appreciates efforts to bring attention to the important topic of in-custody deaths, our department would like the opportunity to set the record straight on our process for determining causes of death.
First, the DMEC determines all causes and manners of deaths independently and does not seek input from any investigating agencies, including the Sheriff’s Department, in making final determinations on the cause and manner of death. The DMEC takes its independence seriously as demonstrated when the security hold was lifted on the Andres Guardado case in July 2020, despite the objections raised by the Sheriff’s Department. In addition, in 2021 DMEC conducted multiple coroner’s inquests in order to share the process and information with the public in our commitment to increasing transparency. A coroner’s inquest had not been conducted by DMEC for many years and we have brought that practice back where warranted.
It has been suggested that classifying the cause of death as “undetermined” is improper or irregular, and that this manner of death negatively impacts a criminal trial. However, classifying the cause of death as “undetermined” is a well-accepted practice among medical examiners nationwide, and the classification does not prevent any criminal proceedings or investigations from occurring.
In addition, some cases present multiple potential causes of death. The presence of injuries does not always indicate the injuries caused the death; the medical examiner must consider the severity of the injuries and other factors in making the determination. Documenting injuries that did not contribute to death is routine practice while conducting autopsies and is reflective of our independent investigation. Additionally, our department routinely explains causes and manners of death to the community through speaking with families of the deceased and court testimony. This transparent practice is a core value of our department.
It is widely known that there are racial disparities in LA County’s incarcerated population and DMEC is mindful of this unfortunate reality. The DMEC routinely collects data during its investigations and autopsies on multiple factors including demographic information such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and age, and supports research associated with prevention activities in public health and other social service agencies.
We continue to serve our community as an independent agency without undue influence by external agencies in determinations of the cause and manner of death. We are here to support those affected by these deaths and the DMEC offers its most sincere condolences to the families and loved ones of those who have died in-custody. We will continue to offer unbiased and independent determinations in all of our cases.