Fighting for their beliefs, family seeks autopsy reform in memory of deceased Fond du Lac woman

SAWYER, Minn. - In the tiny St. Mary and Joseph's Catholic Cemetery, a fresh plywood structure sits over Autumn Martineau's grave, not quite level on the still-frozen ground.

SAWYER, Minn. - In the tiny St. Mary and Joseph's Catholic Cemetery, a fresh plywood structure sits over Autumn Martineau's grave, not quite level on the still-frozen ground.

The spirit house -- as it's known in the Anishinaabe culture -- was placed there by the Martineau family last Sunday, an important step in their healing process after losing 24-year-old Autumn to a car crash on Feb. 10.

According to their teachings, Autumn's spirit can travel through a triangular window cut into the front of the house. The family will periodically leave offerings such as tobacco and food on a ledge at the window.

"Just doing things like that, it makes you feel so much better," her mother, Joy Martineau, said. "The ways and traditions are so important."

While they've taken steps to overcome their grief, family members haven't been able to eliminate their frustration over the events that followed the death of Autumn, an enrolled member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.


They feel their religious beliefs were violated when a medical examiner took her body from a Cloquet hospital to a Hibbing morgue and planned to conduct an autopsy -- a procedure that is prohibited in their culture. The family's religious beliefs require that a body remain intact.

"We still have anger," her aunt, Lynn Olson, said. "That's not right. We shouldn't have that."

They're now supporting legislation that's been introduced in Minnesota that would allow families to lodge religious objections to autopsies. If passed, Minnesota would join a handful of other states that allow for religious exemptions under statute or case law.

Supporters say passage of the legislation won't come easily, and they've already been met with resistance from some medical examiners and county attorneys who feel the bill could interfere with death investigations.

Still, it's a fight that Joy Martineau plans to carry on in her daughter's memory.

"I'm just hoping this will work out where other families won't have to go through what we went through," she said. "She didn't die for nothing. There was purpose in her passing."


Multiple controversies


Autumn Martineau was a passenger in a car that was broadsided at the junction of Interstate 35 and Minnesota Highway 33 in Cloquet on Feb. 10. She was pronounced dead of blunt force trauma injuries a short time later at Community Memorial Hospital in Cloquet.

When Dr. Thomas Uncini, the newly appointed Carlton County medical examiner, ordered an autopsy, family members and tribal leaders were irate.

It was the second time that week that a dispute arose over the planned autopsy of a tribal member. Days earlier, Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe spiritual leader Mushkoob Aubid, 65, died following a single-vehicle crash near Cromwell. His body was taken to the medical school at the University of Minnesota Duluth, where an autopsy was planned.

"I just think that people outside the community have to realize this is our way of life," Olson said. "We don't question Christianity or Catholicism or Judaism or any other religion. I don't see why they should question ours."

In both cases, the bodies were released without autopsies after attorneys secured injunctions from 6th Judicial District Judge Robert Macaulay and met with county officials.

However, tribal leaders said the cases demonstrated the need for legislation to explicitly address religious objections.

"It's a teachable moment," said Tadd Johnson, a University of Minnesota Duluth professor and an attorney for the Mille Lacs Band. "There are some common sense changes that could be made to the law."



Allowing religious objections

Under current Minnesota law, medical examiners and coroners are granted significant discretion in death investigations.

An autopsy can be ordered in any case in which the "public interest would be served," under the statute. Religious objections are not addressed under current state law.

A bill introduced in the Legislature earlier this month would change that. Family representatives would be able to prevent autopsies in any case absent a "compelling state interest," such as a homicide investigation or a public health concern.

The legislation proposes that if the medical examiner could not find common ground with a family, either party could take the case to district court and receive an expedited ruling from a judge.

Gail Kulick, a Milaca, Minn., attorney and the lead researcher for the bill, said those rights already are guaranteed to families. But the legislation could save grieving families from much hassle, she said.

"This bill basically puts into statute what we already have in the state constitution and case law," said Kulick, also a former state legislator. "It's not like this is a brand-new law."



Concerns about legislation

The bill hasn't garnered universal support. At least some local officials have expressed concern that it would hinder investigations or prevent important work that needs to be done by the medical examiner.

St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said he feels the bill is unnecessary.

"I do not feel that legislation is the cure," Rubin said. "I think more can be accomplished by very clear protocols and respectful communications and discussions between medical examiners and next-of-kin and representatives of families."

Carlton County Attorney Thom Pertler expressed concern that the process would unfairly inject the judicial branch into the medical examiner's executive authority.

Further, he said, there is an expedient need to conduct autopsies, and delays in the judicial system could lead to the loss of evidence.

"Autopsies can be very important, not just in the criminal justice system, but also for public health," Pertler said. "There is a lot of medical information that is obtained in an autopsy."

Pertler said other tests, such an MRI or X-rays, don't provide the same level of information.


"In many instances when an autopsy is performed, we may not even know if a crime has been committed," he said. "To prove a case, it's crucial that we know the manner and cause of death."


Religious support grows

At least eight states have specific laws that allow families to object to autopsies on religious grounds, according to an analysis by Kulick. A handful of other states also have varying degrees of limitations on "discretionary" autopsies.

Fred Friedman, who retired last year as Northeastern Minnesota's chief public defender, teaches legal classes to medical students at UMD. He said he's unaware of any issues arising out of religious objection laws in other states.

Friedman said the legislation would provide protection to families who have religious objections, but also allow for autopsies to proceed when absolutely necessary.

"I don't see what the problem is (with the legislation)," Friedman said. "I trust the judgment of people in public office when they think it's important to do autopsies, but I don't believe in doing them willy-nilly, contrary to religious views."

Native Americans aren't the only ones supporting the legislation. Members of other religious and ethnic groups, including Orthodox Jews, Hmong, Amish and Muslims, have expressed similar objections to autopsies.


The bill also has drawn the support of the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, a Minneapolis-based interfaith group.

"Every day, there are observant Jews dying and they're not doing autopsies," Friedman said. "Why should it be any different for the tribe?"


Looking for answers

Nearly two months after their ordeal, the Martineau family still is looking for answers from Uncini's office.

"I would just like to know why they were pushing for an autopsy on Autumn when the doctor at the hospital told us it wasn't necessary," Joy Martineau said. "We never got an answer for that."

Uncini did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

However, in an interview with the News Tribune last month, he defended his autopsy policies. He said at the time that autopsies for crash victims are important not only for criminal investigators, but also for keeping accurate cause-of-death statistics.

"This is, unfortunately, somewhat of an unavoidable tension between religious rights and legal issues and safety issues," Uncini said on Feb. 10. "It's a difficult situation; it always is when grief is involved, but it is even more so when religious practices are involved and they come up against legal issues."

In wake of the controversies, Uncini announced he was stepping down as St. Louis County's medical examiner, a role he had served in since 1998. The official explanation was that he was "no longer interested in serving in that capacity."

He continues to serve Carlton, Lake and Koochiching counties. Authorities in those jurisdictions indicated that they have not received any indication that he will step down.

In Carlton County, his contract remains active through 2017. The county board there voted last week to continue with his services.


'Miracle baby'

Just one day after burying her sister, 22-year-old Taysha Martineau went into premature labor, 3½ months before her due date.

She gave birth to a 2-pound, 3-ounce girl named Autumn.

"It's our little miracle baby," Joy Martineau said.

Baby Autumn remains in the neonatal intensive care unit at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth. She's now grown to 3 pounds and gets daily visits from her family.

"They were telling me my whole pregnancy that she wasn't going to make it if she was born early," Taysha Martineau said. "She was born and everything was working great."

While they can't be sure, the family believes the premature labor was stress-induced. Olson called it a "weird and shocking and sad and happy" experience.

"This has been really stressful on our family," she said. "I just hope no family has to go through something like this again."

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