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Autopsy report can be withheld as investigative record

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  1. Freedom of Information
MISSOURI--An autopsy report prepared as part of an investigation into a violent death may be withheld from the St. Joseph…

MISSOURI–An autopsy report prepared as part of an investigation into a violent death may be withheld from the St. Joseph News-Press, an appeals court in Kansas City unanimously held in mid-June.

The court ruled that the exemption for investigative reports in the state Sunshine Law applies because a criminal prosecution concerning the incident is currently underway.

Release of the report could compromise an ongoing investigation and prosecution by disclosing the status of the investigation, jeopardizing witness, aiding the guilty in the destruction of yet undiscovered evidence or promoting fabricated evidence by a guilty party, the court said.

However, the court rejected the medical examiner’s argument that he is not a public governmental body because he does not make determinations or formulate policies that affect the public. The medical examiner is an administrative entity created by state statute, the court said, and is therefore subject to the state Sunshine Law.

In July 1997, the News-Press requested access to the autopsy report. The medical examiner refused to disclose the report, contending that his office was not a public governmental body within the Sunshine Act’s definition. The publisher sued and the circuit court in St. Joseph ordered the report released. The medical examiner appealed. (The News-Press and Gazette Co. v. Cathcart; Media Counsel: Errol Taylor, St. Joseph)