The Louisiana House of Representatives approved a bill Monday that revealed some parish coroners have cremated bodies, instead of performing autopsies, even when deaths occur under suspicious circumstances. Before doing so, lawmakers in the lower chamber amended the proposal to try to address a critical shortcoming that has drawn public opposition.
Senate Bill 187, sponsored by Sen. Caleb Kleinpeter, R-Port Allen, passed in a 96-0 vote with little discussion.
Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, presented the bill to the House with a floor amendment that clarifies the investigative steps coroners must take before issuing a cremation permit. Without Jordan’s amendment, the bill could have allowed coroners to issue cremation permits essentially whenever they wanted.
The current state law on cremations states: “If the investigation reveals suspicious circumstances or the reasonable probability of the commission of a crime, the coroner shall deny the (cremation) permit.”
The initial version of Kleinpeter’s bill would have amended that provision to say a coroner only has to deny the permit until their own investigation is complete, but it didn’t define what constitutes an investigation. For some coroners, an investigation can mean a thorough autopsy and a battery of forensic tests, but for others it might be nothing more than a brief glance at the body.
Kleinpeter said he authored the bill because some funeral homes were complaining that the West Baton Rouge Parish coroner is being too thorough by performing autopsies in drug overdose cases. West Baton Rouge Deputy Coroner Yancy Guerin pointed out that overdose deaths can be crimes under state law, and police are supposed to investigate and try to arrest the person who sold the deadly drugs.
Coroners not aligned with Guerin’s interpretation of current law aren’t doing autopsies on overdose victims. Jefferson Parish Coroner Dr. Gerry Cvitanovich, who is also president of the Louisiana State Coroner’s Association, told the Senate Judiciary B Committee last month that he only performs external exams and toxicology tests on the majority of overdose deaths in his parish because of a shortage of resources.
That committee heard complaints from a parade of opponents to Cvitanovich’s interpretation of the statute. They testified about coroners cremating the bodies of their loved ones, refusing to perform autopsies or quickly ruling deaths accidental despite signs of foul play.
As a result of those complaints, Jordan crafted his amendment to specify that a coroner can issue a cremation permit only after completing a post-mortem exam and thorough evidence collection. The evidence collection can include but isn’t limited to DNA testing and bone, skin, organ and fluid retention under normal American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors standards.
A post-mortem examination is an autopsy, according to the Yale School of Medicine.
The new version of the legislation still falls short of what some of the opponents wanted lawmakers to address.
Kathryn Simpson, who founded the nonprofit Road to Justice after a coroner cremated her mother’s remains in 2008 despite ruling the death a homicide, said she wanted legislation that made it clear coroners must perform autopsies despite shortages of resources.
“Taking extra time to perform autopsies is a far more acceptable consequence of the pathologist shortage than the forfeiture of justice,” Simpson said in an interview Monday. “I just wanted to see something or someone enforce the law that already exists — not make it easier for coroners to carelessly cremate and continue to block justice.”
The bill will return to the Senate for consideration of Jordan’s amendment.
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