Confusion over Scalia’s death stirs sideshow debate, conspiracy theories

As congressional lawmakers and presidential candidates battle over the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s potential Supreme Court replacement, a sideshow debate has developed over the circumstances of his death.

Questions linger over the precise cause, after the 79-year-old Scalia was found dead Saturday at a remote Texas ranch.

Conspiracy theorists jumped on an apparently mangled quote from the ranch owner about a pillow supposedly being found over the judge's head. But even as that quote was walked back, the ambiguous ruling of “natural causes” -- after a TV station initially reported the cause of death as a heart attack -- combined with the decision not to conduct an official autopsy has at the very least raised eyebrows among seasoned investigators.

“As a former homicide commander, I am stunned that no autopsy was ordered for Justice Scalia,” William O. Ritchie, former head of criminal investigations for D.C. police, wrote in a post on Facebook on Sunday, according to The Washington Post.

Ritchie also questioned how authorities could have ruled a cause of death without first conducting a post-mortem to make sure Scalia was not injected with a substance to induce a heart attack.

Famed forensic pathologist Michael Baden told it is standard procedure not to conduct an autopsy if the cause of death is not controversial, and if the family chooses not to request one.

“I think the family has an absolute right not to request an autopsy, and the family would know [Scalia’s] medical history better and if he’s been treated for heart issues,” Baden said. However, he said that given Scalia’s stature, he would have recommended an autopsy be conducted, in order to stem the tide of conspiracy theories.

“The family has to expect various conspiracy theories will arise because of people’s concerns about Scalia and I think it would have been, from the public point of view, a good idea to have an autopsy to avoid kinds of speculations and conspiracy speculations so the whole truth can be seen by the public,” he said.

There were also questions over the fact that Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara issued the cause of death over the phone without seeing the body.

Guevara told the Associated Press that, although she did make the conclusion over the phone, she first consulted with Scalia's personal physician and local and federal investigators, who said there were no signs of foul play.

State law allows an inquest to be performed by phone. Guevara said she followed procedure because both justices of the peace serving the region were out of town and she was also about 65 miles away from the resort.

Guevara certified Scalia's death by telephone about 1:52 p.m. Saturday. Guevara told The Post an initial report by a Dallas TV station that quoted her as saying Scalia had died of “myocardial infarction” was inaccurate, and she meant only that his heart had stopped.

The answers were not good enough for scattered conspiracy theorists, who point to other oddities surrounding Scalia’s death, such as ranch owner John Poindexter’s reported claim that he found the judge with a “pillow over his head.”

"We discovered the judge in bed, a pillow over his head. His bed clothes were unwrinkled," Poindexter told the San Antonio Express-News.

“Was Scalia murdered?” asked talk radio host Michael Savage Monday, before calling for a “Warren Commission-like federal investigation” into Scalia’s death, a reference to the commission set up to investigate the death of President John F. Kennedy.

“How come there’s been no request for an autopsy? ... My friends, something stinks,” Savage said.

Poindexter later clarified to CNN that the pillow had been up against the headboard and had only covered Scalia's head, not his face.

As for declaring the cause of death over the phone, Baden says this is standard operating practice in many parts of the U.S. even though he doesn’t agree with the practice.

“I find it dangerous not to issue cause of death by phone without looking at the body. However, it is very common now. When I started out, doctors always saw the patient before issuing cause of death,” Baden said.’s Adam Shaw and The Associated Press contributed to this report.