In the old days, the Luzerne County Coroner’s Office automatically refused to accommodate organ donor requests if there was a chance the deceased would be involved in a homicide investigation requiring body evidence collection, said county Coroner William Lisman.
Lisman, a veteran coroner worker, wanted to try to satisfy both needs when he started overseeing the coroner’s office in January 2012.
Working with the pathologist who performs autopsies and county District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis, Lisman gave the go-ahead for viable organs to be removed in around seven suspicious motor vehicle and shooting cases on the condition evidence of head trauma and bruising and other injuries on the skin and bones was left intact, he said.
He’s concerned proposed state legislation involving organ donations will shift the balance to another extreme, putting efforts to remove organs over gathering documentation needed for criminal investigations.
The legislation, to be called the Donate Life PA Act, would “override” coroner investigations into the cause and manner of violent or suspicious deaths and “drastically” impact coroners’ ability to collect evidence in homicide and other wrongful death cases, the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association said in a statement shared by Lisman and many of his colleagues across the state.
“If the evidence hasn’t been properly investigated in drug deaths, sufficient to meet the demands of the judicial system, the ability to prosecute drug dealers will be severely impacted,” the association said. “You can’t convict persons without evidence and without the evidence the alleged perpetrator will not likely enter into a plea deal.”
The legislation says a coroner, medical examiner or designee must attend — in person or through remote video — organ recovery procedures and explain, in writing, the reason for determining removal of an organ may interfere with or impede an investigation of the cause, manner and mechanism of death. No removal shall occur if this procedure is followed, it says.
In turn, the physician recovering an organ must provide a report and be available to provide testimony in any proceeding to detail the condition of the organ and the recovery procedure, the legislation says.
Lisman said coroners should retain the right to make decisions on their own without being forced to turn over bodies to an outside party and justify what can’t be removed.
“I am 100 percent behind the donation of viable organs — I can’t stress that enough — but I have a great problem that I have to go through the control of others for any autopsy I want to have performed,” Lisman said.
The association said some organ/tissue industry representatives have “defamed” coroners by suggesting some coroners are “simply denying all donations.” The organization maintains coroners make all efforts to honor organ wishes without compromising investigations.
Critics pointed to one unidentified county for eight coroner organ donation denials, but they did not mention this county had authorized 274 organ donations during the time frame in question, the association said.
“Overall, the number of coroner/medical examiner denials represents 0.0005 percent of donations,” the association said.
The legislation’s primary sponsor, State Rep. Joseph A. Petrarca, a Democrat based in Western Pennsylvania, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
His website said the legislation would increase public education on organ and tissue donations, clarify the methods for making such donations, streamline the process of working with law enforcement in deaths under investigation and update the state’s Uniform Anatomical Gift Act enacted more than 20 years ago.
Petrarca’s site says statistics show there were 1,993 transplants performed in the state last year and 1,351 this year to date, but nearly 8,000 state residents were on an organ donation waiting list as of Sept. 9.