The family of an Okanagan nurse who died while canoeing with her husband on Okanagan Lake says they were shocked to learn this week that the BC Coroners Service had carried out an in-depth review of the autopsy without informing them.
In 2016, Arlene Westervelt’s body was pulled from the lake after the canoe she was in with Bert Westervelt tipped.
Bert has always said she drowned, while her family immediately called foul play.
Read more: What happened to Arlene Westervelt?
He was charged with his wife’s second-degree murder three years after Arlene’s death. But Bert has always maintained his innocence, and last summer the charge against him was stayed.
In February, the BC Coroners Service finally released the report into Arlene’s death, and ultimately couldn’t rule out an underlying heart condition, drowning or strangulation.
An autopsy was only carried out after Arlene’s body had already been embalmed, when police received new information that sparked a murder investigation.
While the coroner claims the embalming didn’t interfere with the autopsy, other experts believe it’s a mistake that could have lost key evidence.
Arlene’s family has spent the months since then pleading for an independent forensic review of the evidence in the case.
Anthony Oliver, the family’s lawyer, said they were stunned to learn from Global News that the government says a panel of pathologists reviewed the autopsy two weeks ago.
“They were in the dark from the start and they remain in the dark,” Oliver said. “We don’t know who the panel is, what training they have and what physical evidence, if any, they actually looked at.”
“My client has no confidence that the information or the update received today is enough to provide any assurance that the pathology work has been done properly,” he said. “The family is extremely let down.”
A panel of four medical experts, including three forensic pathologists, completed the review on May 12, according to a spokesperson for the solicitor general’s office.
“Formal reviews of this type are rare but are occasionally undertaken in investigations that have generated significant public interest,” communications director Caroline McAndrews said in an email.
“This panel supported the findings of the initial primary forensic pathologist and did not recommend any changes to the autopsy report.”
Arlene’s family is calling for a coroner’s inquest.
“They want assurance from the coroner’s service that there will be an inquest, that the issues in this case, and the issues that appear to be systemic, are recognized and are treated going forward,” Oliver said.
“There were significant errors made in this case from day one on the pathology side.”
One of the mistakes is that the coroner failed to automatically autopsy the body in a water death where there were no independent witnesses, Oliver said.
There are also questions around the forensic qualification credentials of the pathologist who performed the autopsy on Arlene’s body, he added.
“The family understands that it was a general pathologist who conducted the initial autopsy,” Oliver said.
The physician is listed as a general pathologist on the websites for both the federal and provincial colleges of physicians.
However, Global News has learned that the BC Coroners Service appears to have its own set of standards that it follows, designating physicians as forensic pathologists based on experience, references and credentials.
The government declined requests for an interview with Mike Farnworth, B.C.’s solicitor general and the minister responsible for the BC Coroners Service.
Although the family has received a copy of the coroner’s report, they say they have been begging for access to the in-depth autopsy report since Arlene died.
They’re also hoping the prosecution against Arlene’s husband will be restarted.