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Autopsy photographs of illegal aliens deemed public records

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         ARIZONA         Freedom of Information         Oct 14, 1999    

Autopsy photographs of illegal aliens deemed public records

  • A literary journal can obtain, through an open records request, and publish autopsy photographs of illegal aliens under a judge’s ruling that the photographs are public records.

Autopsy and death-scene photographs of several undocumented illegal aliens who died while crossing into the United States are public records that may be published by a literary magazine, a state trial judge in Tucson ruled in early September.

Judge Nanette Warner ruled that while “the medical examiner is not required to take the photos, the photos are taken in the course and scope of his duties . . . and in connection with performing autopsies at the expense of taxpayers. Additionally, the photos are maintained in the Office of the Medical Examiner.”

Furthermore, Warner ruled the medical examiner had not shown that privacy interests outweighed public concern and prevented disclosure. The public has a significant interest in monitoring the policies and actions of the Border Parol and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Warner explained.

The Tucson Poet, a literary journal documenting the cultures of the southwest, had sought the photographs to illustrate a forthcoming piece on the dangers of crossing the border. The Pima County medical examiner, however, filed suit earlier this year to prevent the release and publication of the photos.

The medical examiner initially argued that the photos were not public records because they were not required to be taken as part of the autopsies. And even if they were public records, the medical examiner argued, privacy interests of the victims’ families precluded their release.

The medical examiner also suggested, according to the court opinion, that release of the photos could result in a “chilling effect on prominent people visiting Tucson and who may die under circumstances that would require an autopsy by the County Medical Examiner.” Warner characterized that rationale as “purely speculative and insufficient to outweigh the presumption in favor of disclosure.”

Warner wrote that the release of autopsy photos should be addressed on a case-by-case basis but recognized the power a photo can have in conveying information.

“The old adage ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ is applicable here. An autopsy report describes in medical terms the location, size and entry and exit wounds of gun shots . . . However, a photograph illustrates much more than the words of an autopsy report is able to convey,” Warner wrote.

The photos primarily were of people who had died in the desert from exposure to the elements but included images of Antonio Martinez, 26, who had been shot and killed by a Border Patrol agent in September 1998.

(Parks v. Stanley; Media Counsel: Paul Gatton)

© 1999 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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