Suspicion is part of the job

The decision by Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office to not conduct an autopsy on the 7-year-old Monroe boy identified as “A.J.” is disturbing, and made worse with the knowledge that a Monroe Police detective specifically requested one, more than once.

According to court documents, A.J. was pronounced dead on Jan. 30 after his father brought him into the hospital emergency room unresponsive, nearly 40 minutes after he was found, The Herald reported Wednesday. In the days after the boy’s death, a detective called the medical examiner’s office at least twice to request an autopsy; a sergeant called, as well.

The detective tried to explain that he’d investigated the boy’s parents in a reckless endangerment case two years before.

State officials confirmed that a social worker witnessed at least one of the detective’s conversations with the Medical Examiner’s Office, and the detective mentioned Child Protective Services’ past involvement with the boy’s family, The Herald reported.

These requests for an autopsy were met with a “dismissive ‘no,’” said Monroe police spokeswoman Debbie Willis.

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, according to court documents. Police are now investigating the death as a potential manslaughter.

The foremost question: How can a death be deemed “low suspicion” before the results of the toxicology tests come back? How can you release the body before the results come back? Why bother to order them?

In a county, state and nation where overdose deaths from prescription drugs continue to grow as the No. 1 cause of accidental deaths (from 2003 to 2008, the state death rate from overdose increased 90 percent, according to the state Department of Health) wouldn’t that be one of the immediate thoughts about an “unexplained” death? And shouldn’t a suspected overdose in a 7-year-old cause suspicion? An overdose in a child, even if “accidental,” needs investigating.

(Wouldn’t any unexplained death of a child make an autopsy mandatory, “suspicious” or not? It was only by investigating infant deaths that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was recognized, an important medical and legal discovery, since many parents were unfairly accused of wrongdoing in the deaths of their babies.)

A police investigation not withstanding, the Medical Examiner’s Office needs basic regulations. Such as, if police and CPS request an autopsy, one is performed. Not to do so would be deemed “highly suspicious.”