In a new story published by the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, journalist Brittany Hailer reported on Wednesday that Allegheny County never performed an autopsy on a 63-year-old man who died in custody in 2020.
The revelation comes after Hailer spent nearly three years fighting the county with free legal support from Reporters Committee attorneys to obtain records that she expected to provide detailed information about the circumstances surrounding the death of Daniel Pastorek. But instead of receiving a full autopsy after winning her legal battle in July, she was given only an “external review” that provided limited information. The external review, Hailer reported, concluded that Pastorek died of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease based on his “clinical history of cardiac issues,” “alcohol abuse,” and “mental health issues.”
“It’s pretty frustrating,” Hailer told the Reporters Committee in an interview. “We worked for almost three years to go back to square one. We have the same information we had from the beginning.”
Hailer, who is actively seeking autopsy reports for 16 other inmates who have died at the Allegheny County jail, says the latest development in her long-running effort to learn more about Pastorek’s death raises a lot of important questions, including why the county would fight so hard — and even go to court — to withhold autopsy records that didn’t even exist.
“It’s opening another whole can of worms,” she said.
A drawn-out legal battle
As the director and co-founder of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, Hailer has reported extensively on problems at the Allegheny County jail, including an alarmingly high death rate, frequent personnel turnover and understaffing, and deficient medical care. Since April 2020, 20 men, including Pastorek, have died after entering the jail.
Hailer first requested Pastorek’s autopsy records in late 2020 to find out whether conditions at the Allegheny County Jail contributed to his death. As Hailer has since reported, Pastorek, a homeless man who suffered from schizophrenia, was placed in a unit for suicidal inmates days after arriving at the jail in November 2020 with an apparent foot or leg injury. He died on Thanksgiving Day after experiencing chest pain.
The medical examiner declined to provide access to the autopsy records, arguing that they are exempt from disclosure. Instead, the medical examiner provided information to Hailer stating that Pastorek died of natural causes as a result of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease.
Hailer appealed to the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records, which ruled in her favor, concluding that the county could not withhold the autopsy records. Allegheny County then appealed to the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, where Paula Knudsen Burke, the Reporters Committee’s Local Legal Initiative attorney for Pennsylvania, began representing Hailer in 2021. After the Court of Common Pleas reversed the OOR’s decision, Hailer appealed to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania.
In a 6-1 decision issued on July 11, the Commonwealth Court reversed the trial court’s ruling and ordered Allegheny County to produce the requested autopsy records.
A second lawsuit and more autopsy requests
Much to Hailer’s disappointment, that’s not what the county turned over. The four-page external review she received mostly confirms what she already knew — that Pastorek died of an apparent heart attack. It does not include crucial information that would help the public better understand the circumstances surrounding Pastorek’s death.
As Hailer reported, “Nothing in the records provided by the medical examiner describe when or how he was found, or when he was incarcerated, or that he died in custody. The review also does not indicate how Pastorek’s medical history referenced in the report was obtained or in what manner it was determined.”
Experts told Hailer that a full autopsy likely would have revealed how long it took emergency services to respond to Pastorek, among other important information.
In a statement to Hailer, the medical examiner’s office wrote that decisions to perform autopsies are made on a case-by-case basis “at the discretion of the doctor assigned to the case.” But Hailer says that conflicts with the medical examiner’s comments in 2021, when he told her that “a complete autopsy is virtually always performed” for those who die in custody.
Getting more detailed answers from Allegheny County about Pastorek’s death is complicated by the fact that she can’t speak directly with officials who may have the information she’s looking for, thanks to policies that prevent jail employees from speaking with members of the press unless granted permission by the warden. Hailer, represented by Burke and the Yale Law School Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic, recently sued Allegheny County, challenging those policies on First Amendment grounds.
As that case plays out in court, Hailer continues to seek autopsy records from Allegheny County concerning 16 other men who have died after entering the county jail.
“This is a very expensive undertaking. We’re talking thousands of dollars,” Hailer said. “And what information are we going to get from that? I don’t know.”
If she gets 16 external reviews and zero autopsies, Hailer adds, “that might become the story.”
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.