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Experts Question Decision To Not Perform Autopsy On Scalia

After the sudden death of the Supreme Court justice Saturday, no autopsy was performed and no medical official was called to the scene. One law enforcement expert called the authorities' handling of the death "sloppy."

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Updated on

A judge's decision to declare Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia dead without seeing his body has sparked questions by former law enforcement officials who called the procedure — allowed under Texas law — "bizarre."

"I haven't heard of a system where a decision is made by someone with no medical training," Mike Arntfield, a former police officer, criminologist, and professor at Vanderbilt University told BuzzFeed News regarding a judge declaring Scalia dead via phone and not ordering an autopsy.

For Arntfield, the conservative icon's death didn't automatically raise a red flag. He said that the justice's age and reported history of health problems may have prompted the decision to not perform an autopsy. If Scalia had just been an ordinary citizen, his death wouldn't have raised any eyebrows, Arntfield said.

Still, the former criminologist said there have been cases that didn't look suspicious but nevertheless ended up involving foul play. He pointed to the high profile nature of the case and said that he was bewildered by what happened.

"I'm surprised given the sort of gravitas of the situation, that those boxes weren't ticked," he added.

Arntfield called Texas' system "bizarre."

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Scalia, 79, was discovered lifeless in his hotel room Saturday at Cibolo Creek Ranch. The owner of the ranch, Texas businessman John Poindexter, told the Los Angeles Times he had invited Scalia to the remote site near the Mexican border for a private party. Scalia declined a security detail for the trip, The Washington Post reported.

On Saturday morning, the justice failed to attend an outing at the ranch, prompting Poindexter to knock on the door to Scalia's room. When no one answered, Poindexter decided to open the door to the room, where he found Scalia lying lifeless in bed in his pajamas.

"I went over and felt his hand and it was very cold, no pulse," Poindexter told the Times. "You could see he was not alive."

Earlier this week, Poindexter told the San Antonio Express-News that he found Scalia dead with a pillow over his head. But in later interviews he said the pillow was actually between Scalia's head and the bed's headboard — not on his face.

Poindexter did not respond to a BuzzFeed News request for comment.

The U.S. Marshals arrived on the scene, then in a phone call told Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara "there were no signs of foul play."

Guevara ultimately pronounced Scalia dead of natural causes. She initially indicated the cause of death was a heart attack, but later merely said that his heart had stopped.

No coroner or medical examiner visited, nor was an autopsy performed. No further information about Scalia's cause of death has been given.

Guevara did not respond to a BuzzFeed News request for comment but in a statement Tuesday, she said she decided against performing an autopsy after the county sheriff told her "there were no signs of foul play or struggle, and that it appeared that Justice Scalia had died peacefully in his sleep."

Presidio County Justice of the Peace Juanita Bishop, who was out of town when Scalia died Saturday, questioned Guevara's decision not to order an autopsy.

"If it had been me, I would've done an autopsy," Bishop told USA Today. "They said he was good one minute and the next minute he's dead." She added, "It's for our own good to know cause of death."

Scalia's body was later embalmed.

Bill Ritchie, the former head of criminal investigations for Washington, D.C., police, told BuzzFeed News the entire process was "sloppy" and opened the door to questions about what happened.

"I'm not suggesting that it was anything other than a natural death," Ritchie said, "but what I'm saying is the sloppiness leaves it open."

The former homicide investigator's concerns about Scalia's death gained attention Monday when he wrote in a Facebook post that there was "something fishy going on in Texas." In such a high profile case, officials in Texas should have been especially thorough, Ritchie said.

Authorities should have checked for potential hemorrhaging around Scalia's eyes and lips, which would indicate possible suffocation, he said. Additionally, U.S. Marshals aren't typically given "death investigative training" that would enable them to thoroughly investigate a death scene, Ritchie said.

"In every death that you investigate you assume that that death is a homicide until your investigation proves otherwise," he added.

Though Ritchie acknowledged that what happened was allowable under Texas law, he said officials still should have been more exhaustive in their handling of the death.

This post has been updated.

Jim Dalrymple is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.

Contact Jim Dalrymple II at jim.dalrymple@buzzfeed.com.

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