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Coroner subpoenas medical records on Houston’s death

- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 15, 2012

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles County coroner's office has issued subpoenas for medical and pharmacy records from Whitney Houston's doctors and medical providers, which is standard procedure in such investigations, an official said.

Assistant Chief Coroner Ed Winter said the request is made in virtually all death investigations because it can shed additional light on how people died and whether they had any serious medical conditions.

"We've already contacted a number of doctors with requests for records," he said.

Mr. Winter said at this point, there is nothing unusual about how his office is proceeding with the investigation into Miss Houston's death and that requests for medical records are made through subpoenas.

"If somebody even dies in a crash, a blunt-force trauma, we will still take medical issues into account," he said. "Anything helps."

Investigators in the Houston case found several bottles of prescription medication in the Beverly Hills, Calif., hotel room where Miss Houston died Saturday, although Mr. Winter has said there weren't an unusually large number. Detectives have declined to disclose which medications were seized.

Authorities said an autopsy found no indications of foul play or obvious signs of trauma on Miss Houston. She was underwater and apparently unconscious when she was pulled from a bathtub, officials said.

It could be weeks before the coroner's office completes toxicology tests to establish the cause of death.

Medical records have become crucial in celebrity death investigations, including inquiries into what killed actor Corey Haim, actress Brittany Murphy and pop superstar Michael Jackson. Haim's and Murphy's causes of death were not drug-related, the coroner's office determined.

In Jackson's case, state and federal investigators spent months looking into his medical history and doctors who had prescribed him medication. They decided not to file charges against seven doctors who treated Jackson, although they referred one unnamed physician to the state's medical board for prescribing medications to Jackson under an alias.

Jackson's personal physician, Conrad Murray, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for the singer's death. He had been giving the entertainer nightly doses of the anesthetic propofol in Jackson's bedroom as a sleep aid, but had kept no records of the treatments.

Prosecutors and experts said during Murray's trial that his decision not to keep records was reckless and deprived Jackson's family of having a full account of how he died.

Law enforcement can access California's prescription-drug-monitoring database, known as CURES, which contains more than 100 million prescriptions and receives anywhere from 4 million to 6 million additions every month. The data culled from pharmacies can determine whether doctors are prescribing outside the course of normal medical practice and whether a patient is getting multiple prescriptions from various physicians, commonly known as doctor shopping.

Gov. Jerry Brown touted the CURES program several years ago when he was attorney general, and under his leadership, high-profile investigations were launched into the deaths of Jackson, Haim and Anna Nicole Smith.

In the Smith case, charges eventually were filed against two doctors and her boyfriend-lawyer in connection with her death after the database showed the former Playboy playmate was receiving myriad prescription drugs. A jury acquitted the trio of most of the felony counts, and a judge dismissed two convictions while reducing one to a misdemeanor.

Miss Houston died just hours before she was scheduled to perform at producer Clive Davis' pre-Grammy Awards bash. Her family plans a private church service in her hometown of Newark, N.J., on Saturday.

Miss Houston, a sensation from her first, eponymous album in 1985, was one of the world's best-selling artists from the mid-1980s to the late 1990s, turning out such hits as "I Wanna Dance With Somebody," "How Will I Know," "The Greatest Love of All" and "I Will Always Love You." But as she struggled with drugs, her majestic voice became raspy, and she couldn't hit the high notes.

Interest in her music has skyrocketed since her death, pushing her songs back onto charts and into heavy rotation on the radio.

• Associated Press Writer Greg Risling contributed to this report.

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