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    After Scalia’s death, critics question handling of case (ALIPAC)

    After Scalia’s death, critics question handling of case

    By Martin Kuz, Staff Writer
    San Antonio Express

    February 16, 2016 Updated: February 16, 2016 8:27pm

    Photo: Sean D. Elliot, MBR / Associated Press
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    U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, left, stands with United States Coast Guard Academy Superintendent Rear Adm. Sandra Stosz on the steps of Hamilton Hall after being welcomed to the academy Tuesday, ... more

    The county judge who cited natural causes as the culprit in the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia stayed within the boundaries of Texas law when she pronounced his death over the phone and without seeing his body.

    Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara declared Scalia dead after conferring with law enforcement officials who had responded to reports of a death Saturday at Cibolo Creek Ranch, a 30,000-acre luxury resort in West Texas.

    Texas has no coroners, and most of its rural counties, including Presidio, lack a medical examiner, a dual predicament common in sparsely populated areas of the country. The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure assigns the duties of a county coroner to a justice of the peace.
    Authorities followed the code’s guidelines on inquests by contacting Presidio County’s two local judges to seek a declaration of death. Both were out of town, and as stipulated by the code, officials then contacted the county judge.
    Guevara said Tuesday in a brief interview that authorities, who included deputies from the U.S. Marshal Service’s office in San Antonio, found “nothing indicative of foul play.” She also spoke with Scalia’s doctor, identified in news reports as Brian Monahan, the attending physician for members of Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court, who told her the judge “had a heart problem and other chronic ailments.”

    Based on information from those sources, Guevara, who was also traveling Saturday, pronounced Scalia dead over the phone shortly before 2 p.m.
    In making the determination, she hewed to the state’s criminal procedure protocol, which states that a justice of the peace can conduct an inquest at the place where a death occurred, where a body is found or “at any other place determined to be reasonable by the justice.” (A county judge has the same authority when performing the role.)
    Guevara has pulled back from earlier statements that Scalia died of a heart attack. But she reiterated Tuesday that he succumbed to natural causes and that she intended to complete his death certificate pending a written statement from the judge’s physician.
    “I stand by my decision,” she said.
    Vincent Di Maio, a former longtime chief medical examiner in Bexar County, said Guevara appeared to adhere to the criminal procedure code by talking with authorities and Scalia’s physician to determine the absence of foul play and that he suffered from chronic health conditions.
    “The pronouncement of death is a formality that doesn’t require a doctor,” he said. “A justice of the peace — or a county judge, in this case — is within her rights to do it.”
    Guevara’s statements are unlikely to quell speculation from conservative critics, who continue to question the manner in which she declared Scalia dead, his family’s decision to forgo an autopsy and the sparse details about the circumstances of his passing.
    The scene
    Scalia, 79, had arrived Friday at the resort some 40 miles south of Marfa. He joined three dozen other guests invited by the owner, Houston businessman John Poindexter, who previously told the Express-News that the judge’s demeanor at dinner that evening “was very entertaining.”
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    The next morning, after Scalia failed to show for breakfast, Poindexter and a friend of Scalia’s discovered him lying in bed with a pillow over his head, his body cold and without a pulse.
    The remoteness of West Texas dictates the need on occasion for long-distance declarations of death, with judges unable to report to the scene every time a dead body turns up.
    States guidelines on death pronouncements differ across the country, with the duty typically handled by coroners and medical examiners.
    In many rural jurisdictions, owing to a shortage of funding that deprives counties of hiring medical examiners, local law enforcement officials take on much of the responsibility of investigating the cause of death.
    “It’s a question of resource management,” said John Fudenberg, past president of the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners and the chief coroner of Clark County in Nevada, which includes Las Vegas. Though unaware of another state that allows for a declaration of death over the phone, he added, “That doesn’t mean it’s not fairly common.”
    In an email interview, Lindsey Thomas, an assistant medical examiner in Minnesota’s Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, noted that “even in larger jurisdictions, such as ours, much or sometimes all of the investigation may be done over the phone” depending on circumstances.
    Concern over pillow
    Right-wing critics, calling for an autopsy of Scalia, who was regarded as perhaps the Supreme Court’s most conservative member, have accused Texas authorities of botching the response to his death.
    In a video posted to Facebook, radio host Alex Jones said, “The question is, was Antonin Scalia murdered?” Ray Starmann, who runs the website US Defense Watch, asked in an online essay, “Who dies with a pillow over their head?”
    On Tuesday, Poindexter sought to clarify his description of what he saw when he entered Scalia’s room.
    “He had a pillow over his head, not over his face as some have been saying," Poindexter told CNN. “The pillow was against the headboard and over his head when he was discovered. He looked like someone who had had a restful night's sleep.”
    Di Maio dismissed suspicions over the pillow theory. “You don’t die that way,” he said. “People sleep under blankets all the time when it’s cold and they don’t die.”
    Scalia’s family, as permitted under the state’s criminal procedure code, waived an autopsy. William Gheen, head of the political action committee Americans for Legal Immigration, took to the group’s website to demand that authorities conduct a postmortem.
    “Anytime a head of state, member of Congress, or the most conservative member of the U.S. Supreme Court is found dead, an extensive autopsy and toxicology examination should be both immediate and mandatory,” Gheen said.
    Most states provide broad discretion to a coroner, medical examiner or other deciding official on whether to conduct an autopsy if a death is attributed to natural causes.
    Thomas, a board member of the Minnesota Coroners’ and Medical Examiners’ Association, said that “in the deaths of most 79-year-old men, it is unlikely that an autopsy would be necessary, assuming that the scene appeared natural and the person had a history of medical diseases and no history of prior suicide attempts, injuries or drug misuse.”
    She added that “there are ways in which ‘high-profile’ deaths are treated like any others, in that the family’s wishes are taken into account, and ways in which ‘high-profile’ deaths may be treated differently.”
    Last edited by ALIPAC; 02-17-2016 at 12:15 PM.
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