Saturday, October 26, 2019

LA Times Investigation: 'Essential California: When body parts donation complicates a death investigation. An interesting backgrounder on the important series by investigative reporter Melody Peterson. (Readers can access a limited number of free articles).

BACKGROUNDER:  "Essential California: When body parts donation complicates a death investigation," by Julia Wick  published by The L.A. Times on October 15, 2019. As noted in the Marshall Project: "After 18-year-old football player John Flath died unexpectedly during Army ROTC training, his family members hoped the coroner could tell them what happened. But because his heart had been removed before an autopsy could be done, the boy’s parents will never know. This is just one example from the Los Angeles Times’ investigative series this week, “Bodies of Evidence.” The stories give an in-depth look at the lucrative organ-harvesting industry, which has made billions taking skin, fat and bones from bodies in order to help with—among other things—cosmetic surgeries. The series, written by Melody Peterson, exposes how police cases have gone unsolved because companies harvest organs too soon before an autopsy, and she explains that even in cases where people aren’t registered donors, body parts still get removed. This all happens under state laws that have been written to benefit harvesting groups. —Joseph Darius Jaafari

GIST: "Companies that harvest human organs, bones and other parts have worked their way into government morgues across the country to gain access to more bodies. In some cases, procurement teams are taking body parts before coroners are able to conduct an autopsy, even in the midst of sensitive investigations such as possible homicides. The procurement companies say there has never been a case in which a death investigation has been harmed by the procurement of body parts.

But my colleague investigative reporter Melody Petersen published a blockbuster investigation that shows how companies that harvest body parts upend death investigations. Her investigation found more than two dozen cases where investigations were complicated or upended by procurement in just two Southern California morgues.


[Read Part 1 of the investigation: “In the rush to harvest body parts, death investigations have been upended” in the Los Angeles Times]

[Read Part 2 of the investigation: “How organ and tissue donation companies worked their way into the county morgue” in the Los Angeles Times]

I spoke to Melody about what’s happening here, and how this broken system came to be. Here’s what she told me.


When most people check that little box that says “donor,” it never occurs to them that that decision might someday mean that it’s more complicated for a coroner to investigate their cause of death because of how their body is harvested. What’s going on here?

Well, that’s not disclosed at all to you or your family. There’s a lot of money to be made in body parts like skin and bone and [these companies] wanted access to more bodies. So, they got laws passed across the country that said the coroner had to cooperate with them to maximize the number of donated body parts. That was about a decade ago that those laws passed. This all happened with almost no public debate and very little public notice.

What are the larger political forces at play? How were they able to get those laws passed?

The companies are very powerful lobbyists because they say their mission is to increase the number of organs available for people on the transplant waiting list, which is thousands of Americans. So state legislators were motivated to pass these laws, thinking it would help those people on the waiting list.

In reality, the number of donated organs has gone up a little bit, but it was the amount of bone, skin and tissue donated that went up much more.

I was really shocked by the role these body parts are playing in the industrial biotech market, where as you note, a half-teaspoon of ground-up human skin can be priced at hundreds of dollars. Does anyone who consents to being an organ donor consent to have their body parts potentially sold for profit? How is that legal?

Yes. When you sign up to be a donor, you might be signing up not just to give your organs but all your parts.

But in California, we do have options. The sign-up form has a section where you can choose which parts you want to give. If you only want to donate organs you can do that. You have to check off which parts you don’t want to give, otherwise you’re giving everything.

This process has been detrimental to some coroner’s offices. Your story found dozens of death investigations that were complicated or upended. Why are coroners consenting to this? Do they have a choice?

Here in California, the law made it very hard for them to say no. In some other states, the coroners are saying they don’t have a choice — they have to allow it.

Many death investigations are extraordinarily complex to begin with, and the donation of parts can make it even harder to determine the cause of death.

[See also: “Worried about how your body parts will be used? Here’s what you can do” in the Los Angeles Times]

The entire  backgrounder can be found  at:

PUBLISHER'S NOTE: I am monitoring this case/issue. Keep your eye on the Charles Smith Blog for reports on developments. The Toronto Star, my previous employer for more than twenty incredible years, has put considerable effort into exposing the harm caused by Dr. Charles Smith and his protectors - and into pushing for reform of Ontario's forensic pediatric pathology system. The Star has a "topic"  section which focuses on recent stories related to Dr. Charles Smith. It can be found at: Information on "The Charles Smith Blog Award"- and its nomination process - can be found at: Please send any comments or information on other cases and issues of interest to the readers of this blog to:  Harold Levy: Publisher: The Charles Smith Blog;