The unexpected death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia at a West Texas ranch was shocking, no matter what anyone’s personal sociopolitical and legal beliefs might be. He was a highly respected jurist and a strong influential voice on the nation’s highest court for more than three decades, especially among his Republican-appointed, judicially conservative justices. In a frequently divided court of 5-to-4 decisions dealing with very controversial, nationally significant matters, his strongly voiced opinions had great social, economic and governmental impact.
It is quite understandable that his passing has generated so much discussion and concern among various groups, organizations and political leaders throughout the country. As expected following the sudden, completely unanticipated death of such a major figure, who had not been known to be suffering from any serious malady, there immediately ensued a wide range of conjecture as to the cause and circumstances of his death. Right-wing, conservative admirers have accused President Barack Obama of orchestrating his murder in order to appoint a new liberal-minded justice and thereby gain a five-member majority for important pending and future Supreme Court decisions. On the other hand, left-wing liberal Democrats, who disliked Scalia and abhorred his bombastic language and judicial philosophy, have suggested that his death was directly linked to some kind of illicit activity, i.e., sex, drugs, etc.
So, what is the true scenario? What was the pathological process that caused or significantly contributed to Scalia’s death? What was the manner of death — natural, accident, homicide or suicide?
Let us review the facts and circumstances that have been reported regarding Scalia’s death in order to arrive at a reasonable conclusion.
>> A second person traveled with Scalia and checked into the private lodge where he was staying. The identity and position of this individual has not been disclosed.
>> Scalia told his assigned security personnel that he would not require their services for this trip.
>> Scalia appeared to be completely healthy and physically sound throughout his stay at the Poindexter Ranch and enjoyed his dinner before retiring that final evening.
>> When Scalia was found dead in his bed the next morning, there reportedly was a pillow over his head.
>> The local justice of the peace, who had been notified and was on her way to the lodge, was contacted by federal marshals and told not to go to the scene and return home.
>> The federal government has no authority or jurisdiction in this matter. Scalia’s death was reportable to the local J.P. (essentially a coroner), just as any other similar unexpected and sudden case would be. (The only exceptions would be the president and vice president, based upon a law adopted following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.)
>> No medical doctor or trained forensic science investigator viewed Scalia’s body at the scene. No investigation of the scene was conducted by qualified appropriate personnel.
>> Scalia’s body was taken to a funeral home in El Paso, Texas and embalmed. No physician examined the body, and no blood was drawn for toxicological analysis before embalming.
>> No autopsy was performed.
>> I do not recall seeing a formal, official statement by Scalia’s personal physician that set forth an antemortem diagnosis of any significant, potentially life-threatening medical condition.
>> The Scalia family (his wife and nine children) never issued a statement personally or via a spokesperson following the justice’s death over a period of seven days. In light of all the wild speculation by local and national news media throughout the country, would not such a prominent, well-educated, very religious family have wanted to issue a statement expressing their grief, asking the nation to join them in mourning such a great loss and requesting that unfounded rumors and defamatory comments from both sides of the sociopolitical spectrum cease?
I believe that the way in which the death of Justice Scalia was handled was disgraceful, painful, damaging and insulting to the Scalia family and to our country as a whole. It was an unbelievably botched event.
So, what was the true scenario?
Most probably, we shall never know.
Official governmental medicolegal investigation was once again thwarted in the great state of Texas.
Cyril H. Wecht, M.D., J.D. is a forensic pathologist, attorney and medical-legal consultant.