The state Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a case that will decide whether autopsy reports can be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act, entitling the public – and the news media – to examine them.
The case stems from a lawsuit brought by the Item newspaper against Sumter County Coroner Harvin Bullock after he refused to release an autopsy report of a man shot to death by police in 2010 during a carjacking investigation. The newspaper got the report through another source and as a result was able to report critical details about the shooting that were not made public.
The newspaper sued the coroner, but a lower court agreed that autopsy reports are medical records and threw out the lawsuit in 2012. The newspaper appealed and, on Wednesday, told the high court that the issue is “a democratic” one.
“This man was killed by people acting on behalf of the public and the public is entitled to know what caused this man’s death,” attorney Jay Bender argued for the newspaper.
But some of the justices seemed skeptical. Chief Justice Jean Toal said autopsy results contain a number of other deeply personal medical determinations, like whether someone had heart disease or the condition of other organs. That information is irrelevant to the criminal investigation.
“We’ve got to make a rule that applies to a lot more than this case that involved the public’s right to know about a criminal matter,” Toal said.
The coroner says autopsies should be considered medical records that should be kept private. Even if the justices determine autopsy reports aren’t medical records, they should still be kept from the public under federal health care privacy laws, according to lawyer Andrew Lindemann, who is representing the coroner.
“Simply because it is done post-mortem doesn’t make it any less of a medical record,” Lindemann said.
In the 2010 shooting, police said the suspect fired on them. But the autopsy report showed 25-year-old Aaron Jacobs didn’t have gunshot residue on his hands and was shot in the back. Police later arrested another man and charged him in the carjacking. The officer who shot Jacobs was not charged; the coroner said his report did not change any conclusions made by police.
The case doesn’t deal with autopsy photos, which are banned from being released to the public under a separate state law passed after the death of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt a decade ago. But that law said nothing about the written autopsy report.
Whether autopsy reports are public records varies widely across the country. About 15 states allow the public release of reports. About a half-dozen other states allow the release of reports not being used as part of a criminal investigation, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Most of the rest completely restrict the release of the information.
The justices will rule on the case at a later date.