WASHINGTON, D.C. — The family of the late President John F. Kennedy can control the access to his autopsy photographs now held by the National Archives, a federal district court in Washington ruled in late February.
The court denied Rockville, Md., photohistorian and author Mark Katz any access to the photographs in connection with a photohistory of the Kennedy assassination which he is writing. Katz has previously published a photographic compendium of Gen. George Armstrong Custer and a biography of a Civil War photographer.
The autopsy photographs landed in the National Archives by a circuitous route. Most were taken by a U.S. Navy photographer at the official autopsy at the national Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and turned over to the Secret Service. In 1965, at the request of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, the Secret Service gave them to the Kennedy family who in turn donated them to the National Archives, subject to strict constraints on access during the lifetime of the late president’s immediate family, parents and siblings.
In January 1992 Katz tried to see the records, but the National Archives claimed the terms of the gift required it to keep them secret. He sued the agency in April, 1992, arguing that the initial transfer of the records to the Kennedy family violated laws governing maintenance and disposal of federal records. The autopsy photos should always have been agency records, he said, under the control of the government, not the Kennedy family.
But the court ruled that, rightly or wrongly, the records left government custody and control when they were turned over to the Kennedys. The FOI Act does not address the recovery of agency records, it said.
The court also said that even if the autopsy photos were agency records, the FOI Act’s privacy exemption (Exemption 6) would protect the Kennedy family from anguish that might be created through release of the records.
(Katz v. National Archives; Counsel: Michael Tankersley, Washington, D.C.)
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