Acting to fulfill a campaign promise designed to remove doubt about autopsies performed on people who die while in jail or in police custody, Orleans Parish Coroner Dr. Jeffrey Rouse on Monday unveiled a series of new policies on how to handle such cases.
“No longer will anyone have to wonder about the exact nature of events regarding the death of a loved one involving police or law enforcement,” Rouse said. “As far as I’m concerned, those days are over.”
Under longtime Coroner Frank Minyard, whom Rouse succeeded in May, autopsies of people who died at the hands of police or in Orleans Parish Prison often drew criticism because the reports typically cleared law enforcement of any wrongdoing — even when there was evidence suggesting otherwise.
The new procedures will require the coroner or his chief investigator to report to the scene of any death that occurs at the hands of police or in the jail.
“We’re coming there. We’re going to make that scene,” Rouse said.
A body will not be removed from such a scene until all parties involved with the investigation are notified about the death.
An initial death investigation report, which is done by the Coroner’s Office but is separate from an autopsy, will be filed with the coroner or chief investigator.
Autopsies will be performed no more than 24 hours after someone dies, and outside investigative agencies will be permitted to watch as the autopsies are conducted, as will independent forensic pathologists. The latter would be invited at the request of the dead person’s family.
While running for office, Rouse said he would videotape the autopsies. That, however, will not be done because the quality of video isn’t high enough, he said.
Photographs, which offer an image with a higher resolution, will be taken, he said.
The final results in each case also will be available for review by the FBI’s New Orleans field office.
“I do believe the FBI is quite excited about this,” Rouse said. “I’m allowing somebody to look over my shoulder.”
Generally, the new policies will come into play with deaths that happen while someone is in custody or just after he was in custody of the police or the Sheriff’s Office, deaths that happen as a result of use of force by law enforcement personnel and deaths that happen in a hospital while a patient is under law enforcement supervision.
“The Coroner’s Office historically used to be a real problem in those deaths,” said Mary Howell, a civil rights attorney who has represented the families of many people who died while in police custody or in jail.
Howell said the new policies were long overdue, and she welcomed them. “My initial response is this is really good, and it’s important on several levels,” she said.
In March 1990, Adolph Archie, a Parish Prison trusty, was accused of killing a New Orleans police officer after a chase through the Central Business District.
He died after being in police custody, and his death was initially said to be the result of a fall. However, a later independent autopsy found injuries, such as skull fractures and kicked-in teeth, that could only have been caused by blunt-force trauma.
The death was later reclassified as a homicide by police intervention. No one was ever charged in the case.
More recently, the case of Raymond Robair raised more questions about autopsies conducted by Minyard’s office.
Robair was killed July 30, 2005, in Treme. Witnesses said they saw an officer stomp on and beat the man. Officers Melvin Williams and Matthew Dean Moore would later say they found Robair clutching his chest and stumbling and that they drove him to a hospital on their own.
An autopsy performed by Minyard’s office listed fractured ribs but did not mention that Robair also had a ruptured spleen. The death was initially classified as accidental.
Ten days later, a second autopsy performed by an independent, third-party pathologist found the spleen had been ruptured by blunt force to the abdomen, as well as evidence that Robair had been hit on the back of his legs and on his thighs.
None of those injuries were listed in the autopsy Minyard’s office performed.
Years later, federal prosecutors indicted the two officers. Williams was convicted and sentenced to more than 21 years in prison for fatally kicking Robair and beating him with a baton. Moore wasn’t charged with having a role in Robair’s death but was sentenced to more than five years in prison for submitting a false report and lying to the FBI.
Rouse said he wrote the new policies, which are detailed in a four-page document, after discussing the “unique history” of the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office and its investigations with law enforcement officials, civil rights attorneys and the city’s independent police monitor.
The changes were necessary because of long-standing distrust of the office and law enforcement by some New Orleanians, he said.
“These are the most sensitive cases we’ll ever deal with,” Rouse said. “The information that comes out of this office has to be believed 100 percent, to the same level one expects from one’s own doctor.”
Allowing families to bring in an outside expert of their own choosing went a long way toward dispelling doubt about autopsy results in Jefferson Parish when the Coroner’s Office there began to allow that practice, Howell said.
“The ultimate aim of all of this is you have death investigations that are objective, factual and based in science and you eliminate issues of suspicion, of bias, and, you hope, get to a point where people can have confidence ... that you’re having a sound objective investigation,” she said. “That’s critical when you’re dealing with in-custody deaths.”
Follow Danny Monteverde on Twitter, @DCMonteverde.