State backs decision to deny autopsy

Posted: Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The director of the state Division of Health said the State Medical Examiner's office made the right decision when it denied a second Juneau police request for an autopsy to be performed on 46-year-old Lori Jo Hall.

Beverly Wooley said the decision, made last week by an investigator, was based in part on the fact that Juneau police did not officially classify Hall's death as "suspicious." There was no reason to do an autopsy, she said.

"We wouldn't turn away cases if criminal action is suspected," Wooley said. "Police are our eyes and ears."

Hall died in a Mendenhall Valley hotel hot tub early in the morning of March 8. At least one other person was in the room at the time of Hall's death. Police have not released the name of any witnesses and said an investigation is ongoing.

The medical examiner's office agreed to perform an autopsy on 41-year-old Melinda Chamberlin, who died mysteriously within hours of Hall. Police said alcohol was a factor in both deaths and that Chamberlin was unconscious as Remond Henderson crashed on the way to Bartlett Regional Hospital.

Sgt. Dave Campbell, head of Juneau police investigations, said the deaths are unrelated. Citing the ongoing investigations, he declined to give further details.

Deaths that result from mixing alcohol and hot tubs are not all that unusual, Wooley said. When Juneau police called to ask for the autopsy a second time they were told no because they didn't express any suspicion of foul play or outward evidence of trauma, she said.

The state drew Hall's blood and body fluids for a toxicology screen that will take about six weeks to complete.

Juneau police said the state's decision on the request for an autopsy on Hall's death is not the first denial they disagreed with.

Chief Greg Browning said his department is not alone in its concern about denied autopsies. In December, the Alaska Association of Chiefs of Police collectively decided to take the issue to the Legislature, he said.

"A lot of chiefs share the same concern," Browning said.

"The official cause and manner of death can be determined, and often is, without an autopsy," Wooley said. "Determination is based on information from the investigation, past life history of the deceased, toxicology screen of fluid samples, past medical history, prescription drugs used or found at scene, and other information specific to the individual case."

The medical examiner's office has one certified examiner to serve every municipality and village in the state while a lead forensic pathologist is on long-term medical leave. In 2007, the medical examiner's office performed 288 of 1,457 requested autopsies.

Wooley said she's not heard any complaints from other police chiefs throughout the state and does not consider one medical examiner to be deficient in serving a population of 560,000 people. Extra help is flown in when needed, she said.

In 2007, Juneau police asked for 60 autopsies to be performed on people who died in Juneau. The state granted 10. Since the first of the year, the state has performed seven of 48 requested autopsies.

As a matter of procedure, Juneau police ask for an autopsy on every "unattended death." Campbell said police don't expect every request to be approved because some are old or have heath issues that explain a sudden death.

Browning said the denial of autopsies was "not a terrible problem," but he hoped the system improves. He said investigators would have more conclusive answers if postmortem exams were performed in "suspicious deaths."

The current system may allow "the possibility of people getting away with murder," Browning said.

• Contact reporter Greg Skinnerat 523-2258 or greg.skinner@juneauempire.com.



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