A forensic pathologist for San Joaquin County resigned Monday, claiming the county’s sheriff attempted to control and influence professional conclusions for autopsy results.
In a resignation letter obtained by ABC10 News, Dr. Susan Parson described the behavior Steve Moore, San Joaquin County Sheriff, created as a work environment that is, “personally unbearable and professionally unsustainable.”
Parson claims Sheriff Moore inserted himself into how and when the forensic pathologists could conduct medical duties, “with attempts to control and influence our professional judgment and conclusions.”
Her resignation comes little over a year since she began working as a forensic pathologist with the county.
“This ultimately undermines the overall competence of the Coroner’s Office in conducting objective death investigation for the County,” Parson wrote.
Parson conducted autopsies alongside Dr. Bennet Omalu, the physician and neuropathologist who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and inspired the Will Smith movie, “Concussion.” She added she is “certain” Omalu will be unable to continue to work for the county under Sheriff Moore, given the conditions.
Deputy Dave Konecny, the public information officer for the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office, referred ABC10 to the county counsel’s office for comment. County Counsel Mark Myles confirmed that the office has received Parson’s letter of resignation, and it’s under review. Myles said county counsel would not be commenting further, given it’s a matter involving personnel issues.
Suzanne Bell, Ph.D., Chair of West Virginia University's Department of Forensic and Investigative Science (FIS) served as a member of the former National Commission on Forensic Science. She says that while coroner's offices are often associated with law enforcement agencies, the system in most California counties, in which the sheriff also serves as coroner, is fairly rare.
"When you put science within a law enforcement agency, you create an inherent conflict of interest, regardless of the best of intentions, which everyone has," Bell said.
Bell says many in the field are worried about the potential for prosecutorial bias, since forensic pathologists approach their work with a different perspective than law enforcement officers and district attorneys.
"Law works on the adversarial system — one versus the other," Bell said. "Scientific method is a hokey term, but there's a different set of standards, and a different way we work at validation."