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Sunday, July 5, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Autopsy bill would be a fix, but we can do more

Some local leaders are looking for more transparency to help minimize public distrust regarding officer-involved incidents. The latest effort is being spearheaded by Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, who is shepherding a bill that would allow medical examiners and coroners to comment about the cause and manner of death in cases involving law enforcement.

Some medical examiners have felt that state law prohibits them from commenting until a case goes to court, and that’s caused problems for law enforcement leaders compelled to stay mum when they think autopsy information would straighten things out.

For instance, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he was hamstrung when asked how Edward Gover came to be shot in the back during a confrontation with deputies. The sheriff says that’s just one example of how “myths and misinformation” were allowed to fester in the face of official silence.

Padden last summer met with city and county officials, including Medical Examiner John Howard, to find a way to introduce more transparency in such cases. He would prefer the county use coroner inquests to clear up questions, but Howard is opposed, saying they will introduce political theater into such cases.

Not all medical examiners agree. Some states require inquests when people die in police custody. King County made them mandatory about 10 years ago.

Inquests are public hearings, presided over by the medical examiner, in which jurors listen to the circumstances surrounding the death and determine whether they agree with autopsy conclusions. A deputy prosecutor and attorney for the family can pose questions. The prosecutor’s office is not bound by the jury’s decision.

The public benefit is the potential for quick resolutions to controversial cases. As it stands now, a veil of secrecy drops while the prosecutor’s office decides whether to act. When the veil is lifted months and sometimes years later, important details might be left out, or kept from public view. As these cases drag on, the public grows more suspicious that the fix is in.

This community has endured a number of cases such as the deaths of Gover, Otto Zehm and Wayne Creach, where an inquest could have shed light more quickly.

Padden’s measure, Senate Bill 5256, passed the Senate and is scheduled for a hearing in the House this week. However, it may end up falling short of the goal of tempering public suspicion. While the bill allows medical examiners to talk, they can still choose not to. The bill keeps formal autopsy reports confidential, but it does allow certain entities to obtain copies, including law enforcement agencies. But Padden wasn’t sure if that included the office of the police ombudsman. It should.

The Spokane County Commission is taking a fresh look at coroner inquests as a way to restore public trust. Police ombudsman Tim Burns and Knezovich support them because they’ve seen the corrosive effects of secrecy.

We support Padden’s bill, but inquests would provide a more comprehensive solution.

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