Autopsy photos are often used to refute official conclusions

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From the Spring 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 9.



The death of Dale Earnhardt has prompted legislators in many states to ask whether autopsy photos should be available to the public. The question is whether the privacy interest of the deceased or his or her family should outweigh the public's interest in having access to autopsy photographs.

In passing the Earnhardt Family Relief Act, the Florida legislature apparently dismissed the importance of public access to autopsy photos with little consideration.

However, autopsy photos often are the best evidence in cases involving everything from government cover-ups to strange crimes. While written autopsy reports are potentially tainted by the perspectives or motivations of the examiner, photos provide objective evidence for third parties.

The best, and a recurring, example of the benefit of access to these photographs is the death of someone in police custody. On occasion, an official police response will say the person died from a heart attack, with confirmation from the autopsy report. However, past cases have revealed that the cause of death may be something other than that announced by police.

Frank Valdes died while on death row in Florida in 1999. The guards originally claimed that Valdes' injuries were self-inflicted when he threw himself off a bunk bed and thrashed around a room. However, the photos clearly showed boot prints embedded in his skin from a brutal beating. Other guards eventually came forward because of the proof and admitted that Valdes had been brutally beaten.

The 1995 death of Moises DeLao in Pasadena, Texas, is another example. DeLao was arrested for public intoxication and was waiting to be bailed out of jail. Authorities found him hanging by an electrical cord. The police claimed DeLao committed suicide and the medical examiner concurred. But the medical examiner's report did not mention that DeLao's body was covered in bruises or that he had broken bones in his hands. DeLao's family did not believe DeLao would have killed himself. They hired an attorney and pursued a case against the police, discovering the autopsy photos and finding that the medical examiner completely failed to note in the written report that DeLao had been badly beaten.

Similarly, in 1992, the family of Donald Fleming of Buffalo, N.Y., questioned the official cause of his death. Fleming was arrested for robbery and died while in police custody. The medical examiner claimed that Fleming died as a result of a heart attack brought on by cocaine abuse or sickle cell traits. However, witnesses claimed that Fleming had been badly beaten and photos taken after the autopsy showed serious bruises and other signs of a beating. In fact, the funeral director called the medical examiner to the funeral home because he found a giant gash on Fleming's head, but the medical examiner had reported that there were no marks on Fleming's body.

Autopsy photographs have also helped clear an innocent British man accused of murder. In 1998, Patrick Nicholls, who had served 23 years in prison, was released from jail when a judge found that the autopsy photos proved that the alleged murder victim had died from a heart attack rather than from a beating.

Examples of the benefit of public access to autopsy photos:

• 2000: Jonathan Burton died while on a Southwest Airlines flight. It was undisputed that Burton began acting strangely on the plane and tried to kick in the cockpit door. After his death, however, Southwest Airlines claimed that Burton died of a heart attack. The autopsy later showed that Burton was asphyxiated and some media reports stated that photos showed bruises and other signs he was badly beaten.

• 1999: A Tucson, Ariz., publisher won the right to access and publish autopsy photographs of Mexicans shot to death when they attempted to enter the U.S. The publisher argued that the photos showed the Immigration and Naturalization Service had a policy of shooting and killing some illegal immigrants rather than detaining or subduing them.

• 1998: National Guard Capt. Gordon Hess was found dead with more than 20 stab wounds. An Army examiner concluded that his death was a suicide. A later investigator examined the body and concluded Hess was murdered. The examinations relied largely on prior reports, including photos.

• 1997: Massachusetts nanny Louise Woodward was tried for murder. Prosecutors alleged she killed an infant by brutally shaking him. After her trial, Woodward's attorney's claimed that the child's autopsy photos would prove Woodward's innocence, but argued that they had not been given clear copies of the photos.

• 1995: Lisa McPherson died while in the care of Church of Scientology staffers in Florida. Her family had sued the church, alleging that they abused and neglected McPherson. The St. Petersburg Times won the right to obtain the autopsy photos. The photos showed numerous insect bites and other strange marks on her body.

• 1995: After decades of dispute, the family of President John F. Kennedy allowed independent experts to examine the autopsy photos and x-rays from the assassination of the president. The experts relied upon the photographic evidence to conclude that there were two shooters.

• 1995: Pittsburgh Steelers player Ray Seals claimed something was suspicious about the death of his cousin Jonny Gammage, who was in policy custody. A coroner promised to release the autopsy photos to clear up any concerns that foul play may have been involved.

• 1993: The death of Vince Foster, a White House deputy counsel in the Clinton administration, was ruled a suicide, but photographs of the crime scene and from the autopsy allegedly show conflicting evidence and have led some to question the official report. Although experts may dispute what happened to Vince Foster, most agree that access to the photos is important for them to evaluate what occurred.

Autopsy records, including photos, also can be used by researchers to evaluate health risks. A 1998 study on the health effect of soy was based on autopsies and showed that Japanese men are less likely than American men to die of prostate cancer probably due to soy intake.

In one instance, the lack of autopsy photos proved to be an important factor. In 1999, the Washington Post published an investigative article concerning the high number of deaths among the mentally retarded in the District of Columbia who participated in its housing program. Out of 116 deaths, only eight autopsies were performed and none of the cases were investigated, despite a law requiring unexpected deaths to be reviewed. -- AG