RIVERSIDE — In what was hailed as a victory by a group that freezes the dead in the hope that they may be returned to life in the distant future, a Riverside County Superior Court judge on Monday enjoined coroner's investigators from defrosting seven heads and a body that the group has preserved in tanks of liquid nitrogen.
Judge Victor Miceli, acting on the request of an attorney for the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, determined that thawing the heads and body would be a "violation of the constitutional rights of the decedents" to dispose of their remains as they wish.
Miceli issued a preliminary injunction against the coroner's office, extending the temporary restraining order he made Jan. 13.
The ruling came amid a coroner's investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dora Kent, 83, whose head was surgically removed and frozen at the Alcor laboratory here after she died Dec. 11.
Completion of Autopsy
Miceli's decision for the time being would prevent the coroner's office from doing an autopsy on the head of Dora Kent should investigators locate it. Investigators want the head to complete the autopsy. Alcor officials have refused to give it to them because an autopsy would require the head to be defrosted.
Coroner Ray Carillo refused to discuss the ruling except to say that "the investigation into the death of Dora Kent is still in progress."
Deputy County Counsel Joyce Reikes declined to say whether she would appeal.
Alcor members are practitioners of cryonics--the belief that bodies can be frozen for reanimation at a later date. They also believe that by the time science advances to the point where the dead can be revived, it will also be able to clone new bodies.
Most scientists dismiss cryonics as fantasy.
"This is a victory," said Saul Kent, who is Mrs. Kent's son and a member of Alcor. He added that "it may have taken the unusual circumstances of my mother's death" to help validate cryonics.
Alcor attorney Christopher Ashworth said the ruling sent a message: "At some point, cryonocists have to know that some coroner who falls in love with the autopsy process won't yank them out of their can and thaw them out."
The coroner's investigation began on Dec. 16 after Alcor applied for a permit to cremate Mrs. Kent's headless body after her death in the laboratory. The coroner investigated because the woman was not under a doctor's care at the time of her death.
Carillo has said that although a medical examination of the body indicated that the woman may have died of pneumonia and arteriosclerotic heart disease, the exact cause of death could not be determined without the head.
In her arguments before Miceli, Reikes said: "A coroner has virtually unlimited rights to determine how far his inquiry should go. . . . To try to tie a coroner's hands is to set a dangerous precedent."
She also expressed concern that Mrs. Kent left no tangible evidence of a desire to be frozen after death. "All we have is the self-serving hearsay statement of Saul Kent over what his mother's wishes were," Reikes said.
Kent has said his mother had expressed a desire to be cryonically preserved. Beyond that, as her conservator, he could legally make such decisions for her.
Meanwhile, a UCLA investigation continued into whether Alcor was in possession of equipment stolen from the university. Alcor officials have insisted that all of the equipment in question was purchased at UCLA surplus sales.
A month ago, James Leaf, a research assistant at the university's School of Medicine and a member of Alcor, was placed on "investigatory leave" pending the completion of that investigation, said Rich Elbaum, a spokesman for UCLA's health science department.
"The police here are continuing their investigation into verifying the equipment and at this time no specific charges have been made against an individual," Elbaum said.