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Coroner's autopsy not 'official' record for release

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    News Media Update         PENNSYLVANIA         Freedom of Information         April 5, 2005    

Coroner’s autopsy not ‘official’ record for release

  • A law requiring a coroner’s ‘official’ papers to be public does not require the release of a murder victim’s autopsy to a newspaper, an appellate court ruled last week.

April 5, 2005 — An autopsy report does not have to be released as an “official paper” of a coroner, a Pennsylvania appellate court ruled Thursday, rejecting The (Johnstown) Tribune-Democrat’s

request for the autopsy of a 2001 homicide victim whose murder is still unresolved.

Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt of the Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg wrote that “requiring a coroner to release an autopsy including any sensitive medical information it may contain fulfills no purpose other than to satisfy a prurient interest.”

But Editor Chip Minemyer said the newspaper hoped to “paint a complete picture of the investigation of an unsolved crime” for the community where it occurred. He said the newspaper hoped to “be a player” in seeing the investigation with greater clarity.

According to the short coroner’s report released in 2001, Dana Gates of Bedford County died of massive blunt force trauma to the head and her death was ruled a homicide. Her fiancé was also severely beaten and cannot remember details of the tragedy. A former boyfriend was initially charged but a judge dismissed the case for lack of evidence against him.

The newspaper asked for autopsy records in 2002. The coroner refused to turn them over. A trial court in Blair County upheld her decision and the newspaper appealed.

Pennsylvania law requires a coroner to determine the cause of suspicious deaths and to “deposit all of his official records and papers for the preceding year in the office of the prothonotary for the inspection of all persons interested therein.”

The appeals court said the autopsy was not an “official record” of the coroner and he or she must only make available records that state the cause of death and whether it was caused by criminal activity or criminal negligence. If the legislature used the adjective “official” in writing the state law, it must have assumed that the coroner also has “unofficial” records, the court said.

The law also provides that the coroner may charge for each autopsy report and other reports requested by nongovernmental agencies. The court also said that if anyone could see the autopsy report for free in the office of the prothonotary, there would be no reason to charge. Therefore the legislature must not have intended the autopsy records to be “official” records available for free, it said.

Minemyer said the newspaper has not decided whether to appeal. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is already looking at a lawsuit by the Altoona Mirror for the release of an autopsy report on a Blair County homicide victim.

(The Johnstown Tribune Publishing Co. v. Patricia Ross, Blair County Coroner; Media counsel: Michael Sahlaney, Johnstown)RD

© 2005 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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