Friday, April 16, 2010

Autopsy reports used to reveal incompetency, corruption, but Oklahoma legislators want to stop public access to such records

(See also, Legislator withdraws bill restricting access to autopsy records)

A bill limiting what the public may know from autopsy files involving homicides and cases in which the manner of death is either pending or unknown was unanimously approved by state senators on Thursday.

But the press and public have used autopsy reports elsewhere to uncover incompetency and corruption by police, medical examiners and coroners.

For example:
  • The FBI recently began investigating three post-Katrina police shootings in New Orleans because of a series published by ProPublica and others. Two experts said an autopsy report raised questions about one of the fatal shootings and its circumstances. One of the experts called the New Orleans coroner’s forensic work in the case “incomplete at best.”
  • In Florida, an associate state medical examiner was found to have falsified several autopsy reports. His license to perform autopsies in Missouri had been revoked earlier because he fabricated autopsy reports there.
  • In Tennessee, the state medical examiner was stripped of his job and later his medical license after two investigations concluded he had botched autopsies and lied on some autopsy reports. In one case, for example, he concluded a man died of multiple stab wounds but another forensic pathologist later said the wounds were "cuts from a glass table that the deceased fell on when he died.” In another, he determined a death was caused by sudden-infant death syndrome but a review of the autopsy found the child died of acute cocaine intoxication.
  • In Texas, a former medical examiner was convicted of falsifying autopsies in three counties.

In Oklahoma, HB 3155 is headed to a conference committee, so Senate and House leaders can work out details.

Sponsored by Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Tuttle, the bill passed the House last month by a vote of 86-7. Voting "yes" were 10 House members who had signed FOI Oklahoma Inc.'s Open Government Pledge. More on that later.

The legislation would close access to "information contained in an autopsy report providing the 'manner of death' as homicide, unknown or pending until discoverable under law."

For those autopsy reports, the Office of Chief Medical Examiner would be required to tell the public the "autopsy number, case number, laboratory analysis number, manner of death, full name, age, date of birth, race, sex, and home address of decedent, name and title of the individual notifying the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, date and time of such notification, including the city, county, type of premises, and the date and time of viewing, and the date report was filed."

HB 3155 closes the information to family members, closes the reports indefinitely, and doesn't address cases in which the person died in the custody of police, notes Mark Thomas of the Oklahoma Press Association.

OSBI requested the bill, reportedly because "telling details were released in two high-profile cases last year." The public is left with the impression that releasing those details has prevented OSBI from solving those murders.

The Oklahoman called the bill "an overreaction." But for most of our state legislators, that impression seems sufficient reason to stop access to government records long available to the public.

No thought seems to have been given to whether the public has a legitimate need to know the details of autopsy reports involving homicides or when the manner of death is unknown.

"When you close records, it allows corruption to creep into the system of identifying who died and how," said Thomas. "It is so important that this has to be carefully scrutinized, whether law enforcement likes it or not."

State Rep. Lucky Lamons, a former Tulsa police officer, agrees that the autopsy records should remain open, especially considering the problems plaguing the state Medical Examiner's Office.

Lamons has pointed out that Tulsa police still solved homicides even though it never asked the medical examiner to withhold information

When the measure passed the House, Lamons, a Democrat, was the only legislator who lived up to his pledge to support open government.

Representatives who had signed the pledge but voted to close the records were:

By signing the pledge, these House members had promised “to support at every opportunity the public policy of the State of Oklahoma that the people are vested with the inherent right to know and be fully informed about their government so that they can efficiently and intelligently exercise their inherent political power.”

Even though Senate President Pro Tempore
Glenn Coffee, R-Oklahoma City, voted for the bill, he has said he does not support making information on the reports completely confidential.

"I think we need to be very cautious in going down that road,” Coffee said. "There may be some issues about when things are released and being able to build a case. But a blanket confidentiality is probably overshooting the issue.”

It sure would.

To read coverage of the autopsy bill:

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Journalism

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