Either the hearing officer or a nine-member jury of county residents can consider the evidence to decide whether the deceased person died as the result of an accident, homicide, suicide or natural causes.
“I am a fan of it,” said attorney Matthew Guichard, who has conducted coroner's inquests for Contra Costa County for 15 years. He says the hearing “puts out into the open the circumstances of the death and it doesn't get into whether there's criminal or civil responsibility on the part of anyone -- either the policeman, the dead person or anyone else.”
Contra Costa County began conducting coroner's inquests for all deaths that occurred in custody in the 1980s. The proceedings are open to the general public and the press. Families of the deceased may have attorneys submit questions on their behalf to the hearing officer.
Guichard believes the inquests have made a difference in how the public views fatalities involving officers.
“Putting it out into the open -- the circumstance -- in my view has significantly reduced the number of lawsuits afterwards because parties, families oftentimes listen and go ‘OK.’ This is the first time they really hear an exhaustive story of precisely what happened.”
Some See Bias With Inquests Controlled by a Sheriff-Coroner
Critics say the inquest system gives the public a false sense of impartiality because the sheriff-coroner runs the operation, selects the witnesses and jury.
A forensic pathologist who has worked in several Bay Area counties in California said the only way to completely avoid conflicts of interest or bias is to have the deaths reviewed by an outside expert.
Some officials in San Joaquin County are pushing to replace the sheriff-coroner system with an independent medical examiner's office headed by a physician trained in forensic pathology.
San Joaquin County officials have hired a consultant to look into how Moore runs the coroner’s operation and to provide a cost-benefit analysis of replacing it with a medical examiner’s office.
That report is due in April.