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Some autopsies remain secret for years or decades. Families of those killed by police want that changed

Matt Hamilton and Alene Tchekmedyian, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES -- It is a roster of tragedy and violence, a list populated with those famous in life and those plucked from obscurity by the exceptional circumstances of their death.

Elizabeth Short, known as the Black Dahlia, is an enduring member of the list. Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman are still there, as is Susan Berman, the writer whom Robert Durst is charged with killing at her Benedict Canyon bungalow. The Notorious B.I.G. was on the list for about 15 years after being killed in a drive-by shooting.

The vast majority are more recent entries, including Andres Guardado, the 18-year-old fatally shot in June by a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy in Gardena.

These are people whose deaths have been under a so-called "security hold" by the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner's office, a status that prevents public disclosure of their autopsies, often for months, years or, in some cases, indefinitely.

At any given time, more than 100 cases are under a security hold. This sealing was considered a routine procedural function, imposed almost always at the request of police or prosecutors, to provide a shroud of secrecy during the investigation of complex, high-profile, mysterious or unusual deaths. Usually, the hold is lifted only when the requesting police or prosecuting agency gives the green light.

But in recent years, the practice has been thrust into the spotlight when on-duty police officers have killed members of the public -- cases in which anger and skepticism have fueled calls for accountability and transparency, and in which the security hold has only compounded flaring distrust.

 

The hold has set the coroner's office at the center of an impassioned debate that came to a head with the death of Guardado, who was working as a security guard at an auto body shop June 18, when he was approached by officers and ran, his family said. Deputies said Guardado produced a firearm during the chase. His killing spurred days of protests and demands for justice and answers.

After Guardado's family publicly shared the results of an independent autopsy, Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Jonathan Lucas unilaterally bucked the hold installed by the Sheriff's Department and released the full coroner's report, confirming that the 18-year-old was shot five times in the back.

"I believe that government can do its part by being more timely and more transparent in sharing information that the public demands and has a right to see," Lucas said in a statement.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva was furious and swiftly rebuked the disclosure, saying it jeopardized the ongoing investigation as well as any "future criminal or administrative proceedings," even tainting potential witnesses.

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