Editorial: Secret autopsies endanger public safety

08/02/2014 9:00 PM

08/01/2014 6:42 PM

GOOD FOR Senate Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin for wasting no time vowing to change the law that the state Supreme Court just said makes the results of autopsies secret. And good for anyone who cares about keeping our government honest.

Requiring autopsies to be kept under seal is an invitation to official misconduct of a deadly variety.

It ought to be an easy enough thing to convince the Legislature to clear up the part of the law that four of the five justices said treated autopsy results as “medical records,” which by law are (appropriately) secret. After all, the Legislature specifically rejected legislation in 2002 to make autopsy results secret, instead scaling that bill back to apply only to photographs and videos from autopsies. Which is to say that the Legislature had no idea that autopsies could be considered secret — if it had, it wouldn’t have bothered passing the law making the images secret — and certainly never intended for them to be anything other than public records.

And wisely so. The reason the government spends tax money to preform autopsies is inherently public: to determine whether there was wrongdoing. In effect, they are police reports. It’s true that some parts of police reports can be kept private, for a limited time, while an investigation is pending. Ultimately, though, they too are public, because what our police do must be subject to the highest scrutiny.

The case that gave rise to the Supreme Court’s ruling is an all-too-perfect illustration of why autopsies need to be public: After Sumter police shot a man to death in 2012, they said he had shot at officers. The coroner refused to release the autopsy, but SLED provided a copy to The Item of Sumter, and the newspaper reported that the man had been shot twice in the back and twice in the head and had no gunshot residue on his hands. That obviously raises questions about whether the shooting was justified — questions that would not have been raised had the autopsy remained secret.

The ruling doesn’t simply say that officials don’t have to release autopsies. It says it is illegal to do so. That means the next time police claim self-defense for a shooting and the coroner doesn’t publicly challenge them, we’ll never know whether it really was justified. The good news is that police and coroners are usually truthful; the bad news is that they aren’t always, and even honest people can make bad judgment calls.

Those bad judgment calls aren’t confined to police shootings. A coroner can reach an incorrect conclusion in any sort of death — a child who suddenly stopped breathing, for instance. The Sumter case suggests that it makes sense for someone to be able to look over the coroner’s shoulder, as the public can do in about half of the states.

The justices based their decision on the fact that autopsies contain private medical information that goes well beyond the cause of death — which Justice Costa Pleicones argued in his dissent easily could be redacted.

Whether the high court is right or wrong about the law, Sen. Martin noted that it would be easy enough to keep secret any medical history that isn’t related to the cause of death, while making the rest of the autopsy public — as it always has been understood to be in our state. He’s right. The Legislature should make quick work of that.

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