COLUMBIA, SC — News organizations warn that improper behavior of public officials – particularly those in law enforcement – will be shielded by a South Carolina Supreme Court ruling Wednesday that autopsy reports are medical records and therefore closed to the public.
“With this decision, I fear that the only version of events that will reach the public will be the one that exonerates government personnel from any claims of misconduct,” said Jay Bender, lawyer for the South Carolina Press Association and several publications, including The State newspaper.
The 4-1 decision settled a legal dispute on the status of such reports, which have been sought at times by news organizations to examine contentious shootings and other unusual deaths.
The ruling involved a lawsuit against Sumter County Coroner Harvin Bullock by The (Sumter) Item. The newspaper sued because the coroner refused to release the autopsy report of 25-year-old Aaron Jacobs, who was shot by police in 2010.
Police initially said Jacobs fired on officers, but the autopsy report, obtained from a different source by the newspaper, said there was no gunshot residue on Jacobs’ hands and he was shot in the back.
Justice Kaye Hearn, writing for the majority, said autopsy reports adopted by coroners could contain extensive health information that “fit neatly with that general understanding of medical records” exempt from disclosure.
In dissent, Justice Costa Pleicones said the cause of death contained in an autopsy report should be available to the public after any medical information is withheld.
The (Sumter) Item was disappointed with the ruling, pointing out the public might never have learned what really happened in the police shooting without the autopsy report. It also said the justices’ assertion that autopsy reports are medical records makes no sense.
“There has never been an autopsy that has ever been performed that improved someone’s health,” said Braden Bunch, senior news editor for The (Sumter) Item.
Bill Rogers, Press Association executive director, said the ruling is “a major setback” in making sure the public can verify the cause of controversial deaths.
“It’s not about privacy – it’s about oversight,” he said of the unsuccessful effort to make sure the reports were public record.
The decision mirrors what Richland County Coroner Gary Watts said he has done during 13 years in office in denying all requests for the reports.
Watts said he releases findings on the cause of deaths without “some things that could be private in nature.”
The Associated Press contributed.