Thursday, December 2, 2010

State medical examiner refuses to release autopsy report in slaying of OKC mother

The Oklahoma Medical Examiner's Office won't release the autopsy report in the slaying of an Oklahoma City mother, KOCO reported Thursday.

"It is my belief that the premature release of further details may interfere with the ongoing investigation and subsequent prosecution," Interim Chief Medical Examiner Andrew Sibley told the station.

But Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater last week seemed to contradict that claim, telling KOCO that the public has the right to know the information.

On Thursday, Sibley refused to cite an statutory provision exempting the autopsy.

But if Sibley and the ME's Office can't cite a clearly applicable exemption, the autopsy is open under Oklahoma's Open Records Act.

As the Oklahoma Supreme Court said in 2003, “The public body urging an exemption has the burden to establish the applicability of such exemption.” (Citizens Against Taxpayer Abuse, Inc. v. City of Oklahoma City, 2003 OK 65, ¶ 12)

This, of course, concerns the public's right to know the information. What about the public's need to know what is in an autopsy report?

This blog pointed out last April that the press and public have used autopsy reports elsewhere to uncover incompetency and corruption by police, medical examiners and coroners.

Even so this past spring, state legislators for a second consecutive session debated limiting what the public could know from autopsy files involving homicides and cases in which the manner of death is either pending or unknown.

The bill was withdrawn in May because of stiff opposition on the House floor.

Among those critical of the bill was state Rep. Lucky Lamons, a former Tulsa police officer. He said autopsy records should remain open, especially considering the problems plaguing the state Medical Examiner's Office.

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

KOCO said it will continue pushing for the autopsy report.

Joey Senat, Ph.D.
Associate Professor
OSU School of Media & Strategic Communications

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