While some of the concerns about classifying autopsies as public records are understandable, we think the public interest is best served by providing full access to those records.
South Carolina’s Supreme Court will hear arguments today regarding a lawsuit brought by the Sumter Daily Item against the county’s coroner. The newspaper wants the high court to toss out a lower court’s ruling that said autopsies do not have to be made public because they do not fall under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The coroner contends that autopsies are medical records that should be kept confidential like most other medical records. The Item says autopsy reports are investigative tools, not medical records.
The issue might be easier to decide if a national consensus had been determined one way or the other. But only about 15 states allow public access to autopsy reports. About half a dozen others allow the release of reports not being used as part of a criminal investigation. And the rest severely restrict what’s released or don’t allow the release of any information from the reports.
Advocates for making autopsies public say that access to autopsy records is essential to keeping law enforcement agencies honest when they investigate deaths, especially when people are shot and killed by officers or when they die in custody. In many cases, autopsy records are the only evidence that foul play has occurred, and as long as those records remain secret, no one can be held accountable.
Those who want autopsy reports released to the public also argue that the records can be used not only to implicate someone in wrongdoing but also to clear someone wrongly accused of an illegal act. Or the results can help confirm that nothing out of the ordinary occurred in the way a person died.
In the South Carolina case the Supreme Court will consider today, the Item requested the autopsy report for 25-year-old Aaron Jacobs, who was shot by police as they searched for a carjacking suspect. Sumter County Coroner Harvin Bullock refused, but the newspaper obtained the autopsy report from another source, and it contradicted several things investigators had told the public after the shooting.
Bullock’s justification for withholding the report was that he claimed to be a health care provider and said that releasing the report would violate medical privacy laws. South Carolina Press Association Attorney Jay Bender bluntly noted at the time that Bullock’s claim of being a health care provider was “absurd” because all those he examines are already dead.
We are sympathetic, however, to the concerns of some critics who worry that making autopsies public would subject the victims to scrutiny if members of the general public post sensitive pictures or documents online against the wishes of the victims’ families. But autopsies aren’t the only records that can contain potentially embarrassing information, and sensitivity of the contents can’t be the standard used to determine which records are made public and which aren’t.
We think autopsies are essential tools in preventing government agencies from abusing the law, and that they need to be part of the public record. An open society can’t tolerate restrictions in which the only agencies that have access to autopsies are those that potentially have something to hide.