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A South Los Angeles teenager has died after a fight at school. Authorities ruled the death an accident. What happens next?

The Los Angeles County medical examiner has ruled a 16-year-old girl’s death from blunt force head trauma an accident, raising questions from her family about how thorough and conclusive authorities are in the case.

The girl’s mother discussed a video of a shocking school fight that showed her daughter, Shaylee Mejia, hitting her head during the melee just days before her death. Her mother, Maria Juarez, blames the school for not having protected her daughter and does not understand how the medical examiner could qualify the death as an accident.

The determination of the manner and cause of the girl’s death is just one of thousands of forensic examinations carried out each year in Los Angeles County – most of which pass without much attention, while others, like Shaylee’s case, have raised questions about the process. .

Juarez told Univision this week that last weekend’s decision left her outraged and disappointed.

“I don’t know why they would call it an accident,” said Luis Carrillo, a civil rights attorney representing Juarez. He said he had requested information on how officials reached such a conclusion, but no further details were shared. He did not know whether the medical examiner’s investigation included reviewing cellphone video of the fight.

The deputy medical examiner “would have to see those videos before making an absolute determination that it was an accident,” Carrillo said.

The Times has requested the final autopsy report, but it has not yet been completed. Odey Upko, Los Angeles County’s chief medical examiner, declined to comment on the case pending the final report.

Carrillo and Juarez now plan to obtain an independent autopsy, Carrillo said.

Although determining the circumstances of death as an accident does not automatically close a case, a Los Angeles Police Department spokesperson said Friday that the investigation into Shaylee’s death is complete, citing the determination of a accidental death. He cited no other evidence and referred further questions to the medical examiner’s office.

An LAPD spokesperson previously said Shaylee fell before her death, but few other details were provided.

Carrillo said he is still looking into the case and plans to possibly take legal action.

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

What is a “way of dying”?

The manner of death is one of two primary determinations made following an autopsy, along with the cause of death.

“How the person died depends on the circumstances,” Upko said. This involves determining how an injury or illness led to a person’s death.

There are five possible conclusions regarding the manner of death:

  • Natural: When a medical problem causes death, such as illness, heart attack, or pneumonia.
  • Suicide: When a person commits suicide by intentionally harming themselves.
  • Homicide: when the death is the result of another person, for example following a shooting, stabbing or fight.
  • Accident: when a death is caused by something abnormal but not intentional. It could be a car accident, an overdose or a fatal fall.
  • Indeterminate: If an investigator cannot find enough evidence to support a determination, this will be the conclusion. This is rarely used by forensic scientists, according to experts.

That determination is made after the body is examined in an autopsy and additional investigation is performed, said Iain M. McIntyre, a forensic toxicology consultant who worked for nearly 20 years in the office. from the San Diego County Medical Examiner.

“Often the circumstances of death are not obvious, even after the autopsy,” McIntyre said.

How is this different from cause of death?

“The cause of death is most often the medical reason the person died, or what is actually responsible for the death,” McIntyre said. That’s usually clear from the autopsy, he said, unlike the circumstances of death, which often take longer.

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

Although there are only five options as to the manner of death, there are many options as to the cause of death, often with multiple reasons contributing to the death.

How do forensic doctors make such a decision?

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

McIntyre said the medical examiner will look at everything available.

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

Medical examiners are conducting their own independent investigation to determine the circumstances of the death, but Upko said investigators may also consider police reports or other investigative information.

“Ideally, what we’re supposed to do is independently investigate and examine the body for ourselves,” Upko said. But, he added, “we may also gather information from a (law enforcement) investigation.”

Cases in which an injury resulted in death can make it difficult to determine the circumstances of death, experts said, especially when distinguishing between an accident and homicide.

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

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

Upko said the videos may also be relevant to such an investigation, but he called that very rare. He declined to say whether investigators had reviewed video from the Shaylee investigation.

How is this determination used?

Both experts said it’s important to understand that the circumstances of death are a medical decision, not a legal one. So, law enforcement and prosecutors can use the medical examiner’s findings in their cases, but it doesn’t determine what happens in the criminal justice system.

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

There are also cases where an accidental death could result in someone being held criminally responsible or in civil court, such as in the case of an overdose death in which authorities pursue the drug dealer.

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