The Louisiana Legislature has approved a bill to clarify whether coroners should perform autopsies before cremating bodies in suspicious death cases, but a state law that covers that issue already exists.
Senate Bill 187, sponsored by Sen. Caleb Kleinpeter, R-Port Allen, passed both chambers unanimously Thursday within the last hour of the 2023 legislative session. It has been sent to Gov. John Bel Edwards for final consideration.
Initially, the bill could have allowed coroners to issue cremation permits essentially whenever they wanted, but the House approved an amendment to clarify the investigative steps coroners must take before issuing a cremation permit.
However, Kleinpeter sent the legislation to a late-hour conference committee because he said the Louisiana State Coroner’s Association did not like the amendment.
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 original version of Kleinpeter’s bill would have amended that provision to say a coroner only has to withhold a cremation 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 others might do nothing more than take a brief glance at a body.
The final version that came out of the conference committee requires a coroner to deny a cremation permit “until the coroner’s post mortem examination and evidence collection is completed.”
The Yale School of Medicine defines a post-mortem examination as an autopsy, but not everyone agrees with that definition. In a phone interview Monday, Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, who authored the House amendment that added that phrase, said he intended it to mean various types of post-mortem exams and not necessarily a full autopsy.
Kleinpeter said he authored the legislation because some funeral homes were complaining that the West Baton Rouge Parish coroner has been too thorough when it performs autopsies in drug overdose cases. West Baton Rouge Deputy Coroner Yancy Guerin pointed out overdose deaths can be crimes under state law, and police are supposed to investigate to find 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, president of the Louisiana State Coroner’s Association, told the Senate Judiciary B Committee last month he only performs external exams and toxicology tests on the majority of overdose deaths in his parish because of a resource shortage.
The committee also heard complaints from a parade of opponents to Cvitanovich’s interpretation of the statute. They testified about coroners who allegedly ignored state laws by cremating the bodies of their loved ones, refusing to perform autopsies or quickly ruling deaths accidental despite signs of foul play.
In one recent case, the East Baton Rouge Coroner’s Office released the body of a 26-year-old man to a funeral home on Jan. 1, 2020, ruling the death an accidental drug overdose. A day later, a funeral home employee found a bullet in the man’s stomach.
Although Kleinpeter’s bill appears to provide cover to Cvitanovich and other coroners who aren’t doing autopsies in overdose cases, Guerin said it’s not that cut and dry.
Complicating the situation is another more detailed state law that explicitly requires coroners perform autopsies in suspicious death cases. That statute says a “coroner shall perform” or order an autopsy whenever there is “reasonable probability that the violation of a criminal statute has contributed to the death.”
The new legislation doesn’t change that law, so Guerin said he expects very little to change in the way of autopsies and cremations with the enactment of Senate Bill 187.
Asked about this, Jordan said he hasn’t done a lot of research into the other statute but expects it will be an issue lawmakers will continue to work on next year.
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