There is widespread agreement among experts that medical examiners — the people who determine causes of death and do other crime scene analysis — should be independent from the police agencies they serve.

But to make that happen in Orange County would cost more than $1 million a year beyond what the county currently pays for the services, according to a recent staff report to the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor John Moorlach, who urged that the report be done, said he has a hard time believing the number is that high. However, with county finances such as they are, he can’t justify ordering an outside analysis.

“Right now,” said Moorlach, a supporter of independence for the scientists, the county “doesn’t have a couple of nickels to push together.”

The board asked for the financial assessment because Moorlach wanted to know what it would cost to follow the recommendation of the National Academies of Science and separate the scientific analysis of crime scene evidence and coroner’s duties from law enforcement.

In 2009, the National Academies recommended such a separation to avoid possible wrongdoing or undue influence on scientists by the law enforcement agencies that prosecute cases.

The staff report estimated that an independent medical examiner and coroner’s office would require about eight new staff positions, including a chief medical examiner, at an ongoing cost of $1.1 million a year on top of the $21.2 million currently spent each year for crime lab and coroner services. In addition, there would be one-time administrative costs of $211,800 to set up the independent coroner’s office, the report said.

The county’s crime lab and coroner’s office is under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Department, which also provides administrative support.

Moorlach said the cost might come down if the independent medical examiner also was a qualified coroner. Currently, the work of the coroner is handled by an outside contractor.

Because of a power struggle between the district attorney and the Sheriff’s Department, one part of the crime lab, DNA testing, is run as a three-way administration by the sheriff, the DA and county Chief Executive Tom Mauk.

The DNA lab under three-way management handles criminal tests and works with state and federal law enforcement agencies.

The DA’s office in 2007 established its own “spit and acquit” DNA program for misdemeanor cases, but the results can’t be used by either state or federal law enforcement agencies.

Moorlach said creating an independent medical examiner’s office and crime lab “is something that’s really critical” to ensure the scientific work is free from prosecution pressures.

The board took no action last week when the report was turned in, and Moorlach said he didn’t want to push a more in-depth analysis on the staff at a time when they are already overworked. But that doesn’t mean he is done with the issue.

“I’m putting the thing on hold, so-to-speak.”


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