PASADENA, Calif. (CN) – The Ninth Circuit on Thursday denied immunity to a medical examiner who incorrectly classified an accidental death as a homicide – an error that led to the arrest and false prosecution of a prominent U.S. Open tennis referee.
In April 2012, Lois Goodman, 70, came home to find her husband Alan, 80, dead in their bed. A subsequent investigation by officers on the scene concluded that no foul play had been involved, and that Alan had fallen and hit his head on a ceramic mug.
A mortician noticed cuts on the side of Alan’s head which he thought to be “inconsistent with an accidental fall.” After transferring the body to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office, Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Yulai Wang switched the cause of death to homicide without explaining why, despite the fact that it is a requirement for coroners to elaborate on any changes made.
Los Angeles Police Department officers arrested Lois – dressed in her referee uniform on her way to a U.S. Open match – for Alan’s murder. She spent two days in Riker’s Island in New York and two weeks in a Lynwood, California, jail, before posting $500,000 bail.
Further investigation, however, revealed that Lois’ DNA wasn’t on the mug suspected of being the murder weapon. She also passed a polygraph test.
The district attorney retained two independent pathology experts, and both said that not only was the death accidental, Dr. Wang’s autopsy report was “extreme(ly) below standard.” The DA dismissed the case in November 2012.
Lois sued the LAPD, four of its officers, the coroner’s department and Wang on claims of unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution. A federal judge awarded summary judgment to all defendants, finding they were entitled to qualified immunity.
But in an unpublished opinion issued Thursday, a Ninth Circuit panel reversed that decision as to Wang, finding that a reasonable jury could find “Wang recklessly or intentionally falsified an autopsy report when he changed Alan’s cause of death from ‘pending investigation’ to ‘homicide,’” and that he deliberately left out evidence which revealed Mr. Goodman fell and hit his head on a ceramic mug.
But the court left summary judgment in favor of the LAPD and its officers intact, finding there was enough evidence – Alan’s blood throughout the house, Lois having been the last person to see him alive and the only person with access to the house, and no signs of forced entry – to suggest probable cause to arrest Lois ahead of a full investigation.
But Circuit Judge Harry Pregerson parted ways with the rest of the panel, Senior Circuit Judge Mary Schroeder and Circuit Judge Mary Murguia, as to the qualified immunity of the officers in the case.
“I am troubled by the LAPD officers’ actions in this case,” Pregerson wrote. “the facts reveal numerous instances in which Lois Goodman was mistreated and humiliated by officers who had to know that their case against her was weak.”
He noted the murder charge against Lois rested on a shaky foundation from the beginning: Alan was in rapidly declining health, was losing his vision and often got disoriented. Lois found his body upstairs in their bed and though there was blood throughout the home, there was no blood spatter anywhere.
“In my view, no reasonable officer could have believed there was probable cause to arrest Mrs. Goodman for murder,” Pregerson wrote in his dissent.
He also noted the charges against Lois were dropped without prejudice and “this case continues to plague her” as a result.
The panel’s decision revives Lois’ case as to Wang, which has been remanded for further proceedings.