Why the media declared Anne Heche dead twice

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Anne Heche died Friday, according to her hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times. Or she died Sunday, per the New York Times and others.

Between those dates, the 53-year-old actress was in a state of mortal ambiguity that challenged the media to parse a legal, even philosophical question: When is someone actually dead?

Heche’s family disclosed that she was brain dead late last week following an Aug. 5 car crash. That prompted some news organizations to report her death, based on a reading of a California law. “An individual who has sustained … irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead,” reads the statute.

But Heche remained on life support for another two days so her organs could be harvested for donation. When Heche’s publicist confirmed that she had been taken off life support late Sunday night, news organizations published a new round of news stories reporting her death.

Actress Anne Heche was taken off life support on Aug. 14, after she was pronounced brain dead due to a severe car crash in Los Angeles nine days earlier. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP/Reuters)

It’s not the first time that a celebrity’s passing was accompanied by public confusion. But Heche’s case was particularly unusual, with the date of death dependent on competing definitions of what it means to be dead.

Heche was, by all accounts, in grave condition on Friday morning, a week after crashing a Mini Cooper into a Los Angeles house, causing both to catch fire. With no apparent brain activity, she was kept on life support pending an assessment of her organs.

Nevertheless, TMZ, the entertainment-news website that is often first to report celebrity deaths, posted a news story at 11:19 a.m. Los Angeles time on Friday under the headline, “Anne Heche Dead at 53.” The story noted, “Her rep tells TMZ Anne is ‘brain dead’ and under California law that is the definition of death.”

People magazine soon followed with a similar report, as did the L.A. Times. Both noted within the body of their stories that Heche was legally dead, though her body still functioned. (The Daily Mail, in an alert carried by Reuters, inaccurately reported that Heche had died Friday after being removed from life support; a Daily Mail spokesman said editors updated its story, but did not issue a correction.)

Other news sources made the distinction clear upfront. The Hollywood Reporter headlined its story on Friday: “Anne Heche Declared Brain Dead, Still on Life Support Following Car Crash, Rep Says.” The Washington Post did much the same.

Some of the early reporting was helped along by statements from Heche’s family members that declared her dead. News organizations typically rely on family members to confirm a relative’s death.

“My brother Atlas and I lost our Mom,” Heche’s son, Homer Laffoon, said in a widely reported statement on Friday. “After six days of almost unbelievable emotional swings, I am left with a deep, wordless sadness….. Rest in peace Mom, I love you.”

Variety, which noted that Heche was still technically alive, published a statement it…

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