BOISE, Idaho — Two parents who are members of a Northern Idaho tribe have filed a lawsuit contending Kootenai County officials refused to return their daughter’s body after she died in a car crash and planned an autopsy despite the family’s objections because of religious beliefs.
Nichole and Hemene James of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court last week seeking unspecified damages.
The family and tribe prevented the autopsy after getting an order from a state judge but say the delay in receiving the body of 21-year-old Olivia Pakootas prevented the family from performing important tribal ceremonies involving the afterlife.
“The family continues to suffer and lacks closure,” said Tara Malak, an attorney representing the family. “They were deprived of the dignity and comfort of their faith rituals.”
Pakootas was a multi-sport standout at Tekoa-Oakesdale High School in Washington, helping the girls’ basketball team reach the state title game in 2014. She also excelled in track events.
Idaho State Police say Pakootas, a tribal member, died on June 1, 2018, when she crashed on the tribe’s reservation. Court documents say the Kootenai County coroner’s office took possession of the body.
The family attempted that weekend to locate her body, reaching Coroner Warren Keene two days after the crash. The family said Keene refused to return their daughter’s body despite being told the family and Coeur d’Alene Tribe objected to the autopsy, planned for the next day, a Monday.
The tribe and family early that Monday received a restraining order preventing the autopsy. The next day, the sides agreed to dismiss the state court case and the woman’s body was returned to the family.
She was buried the following Friday, said Eric Van Orden, an attorney for the tribe.
Besides damages to be determined by a jury, the family wants the court to force the county to remove from the death certificate that intoxication was a factor in the crash.
The lawsuit said Kootenai County officials delayed drawing blood, mishandled the blood, and sent it to a toxicologist without using ice. The lawsuit says the result was that officials didn’t obtain an accurate lab result.
It’s not clear why Keene wanted to perform an autopsy following the single-vehicle crash. Barry McHugh, the Kootenai County prosecuting attorney, declined to comment on Wednesday.
The delay in receiving the body caused the family to miss important ceremonies, the lawsuit states, noting they believe that when a family member is killed in a sudden, tragic manner, their soul wanders at the location where the death occurred.
For that reason, the lawsuit says, “family members keep watch over the body from the time of death to burial in order to assist in the decedent’s soul’s passage into the afterlife.”
The lawsuit continues: “The Jameses continue to suffer from emotional distress over their concerns that Olivia’s soul was lost and wandering afraid and alone in the days following Olivia’s death.”