Controversial coroner cremation bill sails through House committee
BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - A proposal that could allow Louisiana coroners to cremate bodies without performing autopsies, even in some deaths under suspicious circumstances, sailed through the end of a legislative committee Thursday, the Louisiana Illuminator reports.
The action came during intense debate on a separate proposal on underage drinking.
The House Judiciary Committee approved Senate Bill 187 without objection and little discussion. Sponsored by Sen. Caleb Kleinpeter, R-Port Allen, it would allow coroners to issue cremation permits essentially whenever they want.
“If the investigation reveals suspicious circumstances or the reasonable probability of the commission of a crime, the coroner shall deny the (cremation) permit,” according to current state law on cremations.
The law is supposed to ensure a body is preserved in case critical evidence in a crime is overlooked. It also allows third-party pathologists and other experts to perform independent examinations.
Kleinpeter’s bill changes that provision to say a coroner only has to deny the permit until their own investigation is complete, though it doesn’t define what constitutes an investigation. For some coroners, an investigation can mean a thorough autopsy and a battery of forensic tests, but for others it might be nothing more than a brief glance at the body.
Some coroners in Louisiana apparently ignore current law and already do what Kleinpeter’s bill would allow. At a hearing last month, a parade of bill opponents testified about coroners cremating the bodies of their loved ones, refusing to perform autopsies or quickly ruling deaths accidental despite signs of foul play.
In one recent case, the East Baton Rouge Coroner’s Office released the body of a 26-year-old man to a funeral home Jan. 1, 2020, ruling the death an accidental drug overdose. A day later, a funeral home employee found a bullet in the man’s stomach.
East Baton Rouge coroner Beau Clark has not responded to requests for comment.
Another high profile case involves the 2019 police beating death of Ronald Greene. The Union Parish coroner at that time, Abbie Moon, attributed Greene’s death to an auto accident then had the body cremated despite a pathologist’s findings that his injuries were inconsistent with a car wreck.
Kleinpeter said he authored the bill because some funeral homes were complaining that the West Baton Rouge coroner is moving too slow because of all the autopsies it performs in drug overdose cases. West Baton Rouge Deputy Coroner Yancy Guerin pointed out that overdose deaths can be crimes under state law, and police are supposed to investigate and try to arrest the person who sold the deadly drugs.
The proliferation of overdose deaths has overburdened some coroners, and cremation is a quick and affordable option for families who cannot afford burials.
Rep. Edmond Jordan, D-Baton Rouge, said he is concerned with the previous testimony about coroners failing to perform autopsies, though he still voted to advance Kleinpeter’s bill. He and Kleinpeter agreed to work on the bill to smooth out some of those concerns before it comes up for a House floor vote.
Two opponents of the bill who testified in a Senate committee earlier this month appeared to testify again on Thursday but left before the bill was called.
Kleinpeter’s proposal was the last item heard in Thursday’s hearing, which extended into the lunch hour following exhaustive debate on Sen. Beth Mizell’s underage drinking bill. It would have allowed lawsuits against establishments that illegally serve alcohol to underage patrons and would have required some bars to use scanners to better detect fake IDs.
Mizell introduced her bill in response to the Jan. 15 death of 18-year-old Madison Brooks, an LSU student who was allegedly sexually assaulted after becoming heavily intoxicated at Reggie’s, a bar in Tigerland. According to police, Brooks accepted a ride home from four men and was raped before being dropped off in a residential area. She was then fatally struck by a vehicle when she wandered along Burbank Drive. The four men have been charged with her rape.
“We read horrific headlines that should demand some responsibility from the bar owner and some accountability by us,” Mizell said.
Mizell significantly watered down her bill to move it through the Senate but faced difficult questions from House members who expressed reluctance to place liability on bars and none on underage drinkers who knowingly break the law by using fake IDs. The proposal failed in an evenly split 6-6 vote.
The House Judiciary Committee has no more hearings scheduled for the remainder of the 2023 legislative session.
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