New SF medical examiner ED seeks to restore faith in office

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday February 15, 2023
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David Serrano Sewell is the new executive director of the San Francisco medical examiner's office. Photo: Courtesy City Administrator's Office
David Serrano Sewell is the new executive director of the San Francisco medical examiner's office. Photo: Courtesy City Administrator's Office

The new executive director of the city's medical examiner's office said the department has cracked down on the loose handling of drug evidence.

"That's something that can't be tolerated in any office," David Serrano Sewell, a straight ally, told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent interview.

KQED-TV reported in 2020 that former employees who'd worked in the toxicology lab said supervisors allowed illegal drugs to "pile up in the evidence room" and did not follow proper procedures regarding evidence mishandling. This came after a lab analyst was found with suspected crystal meth after being pulled over for speeding in Utah.

"Thankfully, it was addressed," Serrano Sewell said. "The specimen retention and discard policy was updated. The office conducted a full audit and all of those findings were adopted in a pretty timely manner."

Serrano Sewell, 52, took over as the executive director in December after being appointed to the position by City Administrator Carmen Chu. He had served as chief operating officer in the office since 2020, and said that there have been "no issues since then" regarding evidence storage.

Serrano Sewell also said that a major goal is to be respectful of transgender and other gender-nonconforming communities, bringing up the 'X' marker people can put down for their gender on their driver's license.

As COO, Serrano Sewell helped draft the office's first policy on honoring the gender identities of decedents, particularly those who are trans and nonbinary.

"We've got to make sure everyone knows what 'X' is and this is how we note people in our system and that we're doing the same for trans female, trans males," he said.

Serrano Sewell, who lives in the Mission neighborhood with his wife, daughter, and two cats, went to the Golden Gate University School of Law in the city's South of Market neighborhood, where he graduated with a J.D. He was admitted to the California bar in 2003.

It was during his time at San Francisco State University, where he did his undergraduate work after moving to the city in 1989, that he "totally fell in love with San Francisco and didn't want to move back to Los Angeles."

He has a long tenure in city government, first serving as an aide to then-mayor Willie Brown, then as a deputy city attorney for the Port of San Francisco and San Francisco International Airport.

It was in that capacity that he got to know gay District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey, who also worked in the city attorney's office at the time. Dorsey recalled how he had seen "firsthand" his longtime former colleague's "commitment to public service and professionalism" in a news release about Serrano Sewell's appointment.

"David's leadership and hard work were instrumental in gaining full accreditation from the National Association of Medical Examiners recently, and I have every confidence that he will continue to uphold the highest standards of professional excellence in his new role as the director for San Francisco's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner," stated Dorsey.

According to a December 15, 2022 news release from Chu's office, the medical examiner's office achieved full accreditation from the National Association of Medical Examiners that month. Its accreditation had lapsed in 2017, the release stated, but received provisional accreditation in 2021, which was good for a year.

The death of Jaxon Sales has brought scrutiny to the medical examiner's office. Photo: Courtesy Sales family  

Case of gay man brings scrutiny to office
The fact that the office did not have accreditation for a period of time has played a role in the case of a gay 20-year-old man whose parents allege his death was not properly investigated due to homophobia on the part of the medical examiner's office.

As the B.A.R. reported last week the family of the late Jaxon Sales sent a letter calling on California Attorney General Rob Bonta, San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, San Francisco City Attorney David Chiu, and San Francisco Police Chief William Scott to "compel the San Francisco Medical Examiner to fully investigate the circumstances of their son's death."

Jaxon Sales died March 2, 2020 in the Rincon Hill apartment of a 41-year-old man, as the B.A.R. reported in 2022. But his death was deemed accidental by officials and wasn't investigated at the time by police as possibly a homicide.

The medical examiner's report lists the cause of Jaxon Sales' death as acute mixed drug intoxication, including gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid, cocaine, and methamphetamine. The manner of death is listed as an accident.

The family contends that the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner did not do its due diligence in investigating the death.

According to the Sales family, an official with the medical examiner's office told them "no investigation is needed as 'the gay community uses GHB,'" a statement they said is discriminatory, and which was previously reported by the B.A.R.

A news release from the family's attorney stated that "further bolstering Jaxon's parents' petition is the fact that the San Francisco Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ("OCME") was not accredited and conducted several faulty investigations during the time in which it considered Jaxon's death."

In a statement to the B.A.R. last week, Serrano Sewell stood by the agency's findings.

"In [the] case of Mr. Sales, the OCME conducted a full forensic investigation, including complete autopsy and post-mortem toxicology testing," he stated. The chief medical examiner carefully reviewed these records and the investigative file and again confirmed the certification of cause of death as acute mixed drug toxicity; there was no evidence of life-threatening traumatic injuries or natural disease.

"As to the serious allegation that OCME staff were biased against Mr. Sales because of his sexual orientation and that it impacted the OCME's approach to or findings in the case, OCME does not tolerate discrimination of any kind in our office or in our work," Serrano Sewell continued. "A decedent's sexual orientation, race, religion, gender identity, or other factors do not influence our medical death investigations, findings, or conclusions."

Getting accreditation restored
Serrano Sewell also worked as an "advocate for public and nonprofit hospitals," he said.

He said that when he took over as COO back in 2020, his first task was to help get the office fully accredited with the National Association of Medical Examiners.

"The office had been without accreditation," Serrano Sewell said. "They look at your policies and procedures with an eye toward there being sufficient resources and bringing closure to families in an effective manner. I started in 2020 and [Chief Medical Examiner] Dr. [Christopher] Liverman was appointed in 2020."

Liverman stated, "David has been an exceptional leader and fierce advocate for the OCME ... I look forward to continuing working with him and the OCME team to excel at fulfilling all responsibilities of the medical examiner's office with the highest standards of ethics and excellence."

In 2021 the office achieved provisional accreditation and, in 2022, the office received full accreditation.

The standard the office tries to meet is 90% of cases being closed in 90 days. Chu said she was "very pleased."

"Over the last two years, David has proven himself to be a visionary and steadfast leader," Chu said. "He's focused on how the organization runs, implementing necessary operational improvements and ultimately driving towards our city's successful re-accreditation. His commitment to excellence and his close partnership with our Chief Medical Examiner will serve our city well in the years ahead."

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