Without admitting any missteps on the part of the Snohomish County Medical Examiner who declined to conduct an autopsy on an 7-year-old boy despite multiple requests to do so by law enforcement officials, the county is nonetheless changing its protocol (did it have one before?) when it comes to who is to be notified when it’s decided an autopsy won’t be performed on a child.
To recap: Last year, a boy identified as A.J. in court papers, was pronounced dead on Jan. 30 after his father brought him into the hospital emergency room unresponsive, nearly 40 minutes after he was found. In the days after the boy’s death, Monroe police called the medical examiner’s office at least three times to request an autopsy. They were met with a “dismissive no,” according to Monroe police.
The Medical Examiner’s Office then ruled the boy’s death “low suspicion.” His body was released and cremated without an autopsy. Two weeks later, toxicology tests ordered by the medical examiner came back showing the boy died with lethal amounts of what appear to be over-the-counter painkillers in his system.
On Tuesday it was reported that the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office doesn’t plan to file criminal charges in the overdose death because there is insufficient evidence that a crime was committed. County Prosecutor Mark Roe, however, said the case has prompted changes in who is notified about a child’s death when no autopsy is planned. The medical examiner has agreed to contact Child Protective Services, law enforcement and prosecutors before releasing the body of a child to a funeral home.
Questions, however, remain, including the main one in A.J.’s case: What is the protocol for determining whether to conduct an autopsy or not? Will a request, or multiple requests by law enforcement be enough to ensure an autopsy? It should. If law enforcement is asking for an autopsy, they obviously believe the death is “suspicious.” Their concerns need to outweigh the medical examiner’s reluctance. Because without any outward signs of trauma, or pleadings from police or family members, medical examiners would rarely have cause to “suspect” anything. (Don’t let the bad guys know.)
Also, will the medical examiner continue to be free to deem a death “low suspicion,” and release a body, (child or adult) before a routine toxicology screen is returned?
And, again, shouldn’t any unexplained death of a child raise suspicion?
Changes to the medical examiner’s office are necessary to redeem its reputation; however, it will take time to get past the “dismissive no” to requests for an autopsy. A.J., and his advocates deserved better.