clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why nutty conspiracy theories on Antonin Scalia's death are already surfacing

A makeshift memorial for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is seen at the US Supreme Court, February 14, 2016, in Washington, DC.
A makeshift memorial for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is seen at the US Supreme Court, February 14, 2016, in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Justice Antonin Scalia's sudden death over the weekend, replete with delays, odd calls, and misreporting, was ripe for conspiracy theory enthusiasts to seize on.

Scalia, 79, was pronounced dead at a remote Texas ranch where he had gone for a hunting retreat. Here’s what we know about his death, what we don’t, and why it’s become so controversial.

A justice of the peace pronounced Scalia dead over the phone

The Cibolo Creek Ranch where Justice Scalia was vacationing over the weekend was so remote that when officials called for a justice of the peace, none in the vicinity were available for several hours. The first available justice of the peace they reached was Presidio County Judge Cinderella Guevara, who pronounced Scalia legally dead over the phone without seeing his body. That may seem unusual, but it is permissible under Texas law — and a US marshal at the scene told the judge it was not necessary for her to observe the body in person.

To make her pronouncement, she did speak to law enforcement officials, who assured her there were no signs of foul play. She also checked with Scalia’s physician back in Washington, who told her the justice suffered from several chronic conditions and had undergone an MRI scan for a shoulder problem earlier that week.

Justice Scalia did not die of a heart attack

The cause of Scalia’s death is still officially undetermined. On Sunday, a Dallas TV station quoted Guevara saying that Scalia had died of "myocardial infarction." She rebutted the story to the Washington Post, telling them she had only meant to say his heart had stopped.

Scalia refused a security detail – which is why it took so long to find his body

The US Marshals Service typically provides security for Supreme Court justices. But in a statement released on Sunday, the service said that Scalia had declined a detail to accompany him to the ranch over the weekend. That meant there were no marshals present when Scalia died, arriving only after they had been notified of his passing. That contributed to the delay in declaring his death.

There will be no autopsy

When Guevara made the death pronouncement, she did not order an autopsy to determine a cause. A manager at the funeral home in El Paso, where his body had been taken, confirmed to the Washington Post that Scalia’s family did not want one performed.

But even on Sunday afternoon, the prudence behind that decision was being questioned. "If it had been me … I would want to know," Juanita Bishop, a justice of the peace in Presidio, told the Post.

It’s unclear whether, without an autopsy, a more specific cause of death will be announced.

Scalia was discovered with a pillow on his head

This is perhaps the most damning piece of evidence in the conspiracy theorists' arsenal. When the owner of the ranch found Scalia's body in bed, he mentioned a pillow covering the justice's face.

"We discovered the judge in bed, a pillow over his head. His bed clothes were unwrinkled," John Poindexter, the owner, said.

Poindexter later told the Los Angeles Times that the pillow was between Scalia's head and the headboard, and not over his face.

It's unclear what, exactly, the pillow signifies - the skeptics trumpeting the piece of evidence won't say. Perhaps they are suggesting it was used to smother the justice, or to cover his face to make it look as though he were only sleeping.

Note: This story has been updated to reflect that the pillow was not on Scalia's face.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.