Officials rule the death of South Los Angeles teen Shaylee Mejia accidental.

Officials rule the death of South Los Angeles teen Shaylee Mejia accidental.

The Los Angeles County medical examiner has ruled that the death of a 16-year-old girl from blunt force trauma to the head was an accident, raising questions from her family about the accuracy of officials in the case.

The girl’s mother pointed to a video from a horrific school fight that showed her daughter, Shaylee Mejia, hitting her head during the fight just days before her death. Her mother, Maria Juarez, blames the high school for failing to protect her daughter, and does not understand how the coroner could rule the death an accident.

Determining the manner and cause of the girl’s death is just one of thousands conducted by experts each year in Los Angeles County — most of which go without notice, while other cases, like Shaylee’s, have raised questions about the process. .

Juarez told Univision this week that the decision, made last weekend, left her angry and disappointed.

“I don’t know why they’re calling it an accident,” said Luis Carrillo, a civil rights attorney representing Juarez. He said he requested information about how officials reached such a conclusion, but no further details were shared. It was not known whether the coroner’s investigation included reviewing cell phone video of the fight.

The deputy medical examiner “should watch those videos before conclusively determining that it was an accident,” Carrillo said.

The Times has requested the final autopsy report, but it has not yet been completed. Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner Odie Apko declined to comment on the case pending the final report.

Carrillo and Juarez are now considering performing an independent autopsy, Carrillo and Juarez said.

While finding the manner of death an accident does not automatically close a case, a Los Angeles Police Department spokesperson said Friday that the investigation into Shaylee’s death has been completed, indicating the death has been determined to be accidental. He did not cite any further evidence and referred further questions to the medical examiner’s office.

An LAPD spokesman had previously said that Shaylee had fallen before her death, but few other details were provided.

Carrillo said he is still researching the case and plans to eventually file a lawsuit.

The Times spoke with forensic experts about what a ruling of accidental death means, how such a decision is made and whether that decision could ultimately change.

What is the “way of death”?

Manner of death is one of the two main decisions made after an autopsy, along with cause of death.

“The manner of death depends on the circumstances,” Abko said. This is to determine how an injury or illness led to someone’s death.

There are five possible conclusions to the manner of death:

  • Natural: When a medical problem causes death, such as illness, heart attack, or pneumonia.
  • Suicide: When someone commits suicide due to a deliberate act of harming themselves.
  • Homicide: When death is the result of another person, such as shooting, stabbing, or fighting.
  • Accident: When death is caused by something unnatural but also unintentional. This could be a car accident, overdose, or fatal fall.
  • Unspecified: If the investigator cannot find sufficient evidence to substantiate the decision, this will be the outcome. Experts said this is rarely used by medical examiners.

That decision is made after the body is examined at an autopsy and additional investigation is conducted, said Ian M. McIntyre, a consultant forensic toxicologist who previously worked for nearly 20 years in the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“Often the manner of death is not clear until after an autopsy,” McIntyre said.

How is this different from cause of death?

“The cause of death most often is the medical reason that led to the person’s death, or what was actually responsible for the death,” McIntyre said. He said this is usually quite clear from the autopsy, unlike the manner of death which often takes longer.

“The manner of death can take some time if the circumstances are not very clear,” Apko said.

While there are only five options for manner of death, there are many options for cause of death – often multiple causes contributing to death.

How do forensic scientists make such a decision?

“Once the cause of death is determined, that’s the first step, and then the manner of death is the second step,” Okpo said.

The medical examiner will look at everything available, McIntyre said.

“Hospital records, police reports, investigators’ reports, toxicology reports, histology reports, and obviously the autopsy results,” McIntyre said.

Medical examiners are conducting their own independent investigations to determine the manner of death, but Abko said investigators could also look at police reports or other investigative information.

“Ideally, what we’re supposed to do is investigate independently and look at the body ourselves,” Apco said. But, he said, “We can gather information from the (law enforcement) investigation as well.”

Experts said that cases in which injury led to death can make determining the manner of death difficult, especially when trying to distinguish between accident or homicide.

“You can’t make a decision based solely on physical injury,” McIntyre said.

Both McIntyre and Apco said the determination of the manner of death could change if new information becomes available later.

Apkow said the videos could be relevant to such an investigation, but described that as very rare. He declined to say whether investigators reviewed the video in the Shailey investigation.

How is this selection used?

Both experts said it’s important to understand that manner of death is a medical decision, not a legal decision. So law enforcement officials and prosecutors can use medical examination results in their cases, but this does not determine what happens in the criminal justice system.

“The legal system works differently,” McIntyre said. For example, the manner of death may be ruled a homicide, but it may not be a crime – such as in cases of self-defense.

There are also ways in which an accidental death can result in someone being held criminally liable or liable in civil court, such as an overdose death where officials prosecute a drug dealer.

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