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Officials cannot release autopsy results in car fire death

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   DELAWARE   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   April 6, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   DELAWARE   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   April 6, 2006

Officials cannot release autopsy results in car fire death

  • The state high court, ruling against a police chief who wanted to release autopsy records, said a family’s privacy trumps the public’s interest in a suspicious death.

April 6, 2006  ·   The Rehoboth Beach Police Chief and other Delaware officials cannot release information about the death of a businessman who was found last year inside his burned BMW, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday.

Reversing a lower court decision, the five justices ruled unanimously in favor of Lisa Lawson, who sued the police chief, the state medical examiner and others to keep them from releasing autopsy information about her late husband. Duane Lawson, the owner of a Gold’s Gym, was found dead in his burned car in a Rehoboth Beach hotel parking garage in February 2005. The death attracted intense media coverage and public speculation, according to court records. The speculation included allegations of a police cover-up, The Associated Press reported.

Rehoboth Beach Police Chief Keith Banks wanted to release information about how Lawson died, but Lisa Lawson sought a permanent injunction to keep him and others from doing so on the grounds that the information was private and protected. The Supreme Court agreed, overturning Vice Chancellor Stephen P. Lamb in Wilmington.

In an interview, Banks said he was “disappointed” with the decision because he wants to release details about Lawson’s death “to clarify what had happened.”

“I never intended to embarrass anybody or anyone’s family,” he said. “I don’t believe in giving out investigatory information. I believe there is a line we don’t cross.”

Drawing that line in the Lawson case, Justice Randy J. Holland cited a recent attorney general opinion that says autopsy reports are investigatory files exempt from the Delaware Freedom of Information Act.

That opinion is being challenged in court, AP reported.

The court relied on two state laws in its ruling, one that governs privacy in the medical examiner’s office and another that makes health records private. The justices declined to address Lisa Lawson’s claim of a common law right of privacy.

Nevertheless, some observers said the ruling appears to create a new right of privacy after a person dies. Alice Neff Lucan, a Washington lawyer who provides counsel to the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association on its access hotline, disagreed.

“The right of privacy has been recognized for the last 120 years,” she said. “I don’t think one state court misunderstanding invasion of privacy” changes the law.

Lucan said the court was “confusing itself”about distinguishing between the rights of families to grieve in private and the public’s interest in autopsy results.

“The reports kept by government agencies in a suspicious death are in the public interest,” she said.

Justice Holland wrote that because Lawson’s death has been ruled an accident, public disclosure is prohibited by law.

Quoting a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision — National Archives and Records Administration v. Favish — Holland wrote, “[f]amily members have a personal stake in honoring and mourning their dead and objecting to unwarranted public exploitation that, by intruding upon their own grief, tends to degrade the rites and respect they seek to accord to the deceased person who was once their own.”

Lisa Lawson’s attorney, Jack Phillips Jr., told AP that the court’s decision is “a great victory for Lisa Lawson and people in her situation.”

Alyssa Schwartz, an attorney in Wilmington, Del., who worked on a friend-of-the-court brief for the press association, declined to comment while the Freedom of Information case is still pending in court. Her firm is working on both cases.

(Lawson v. Meconi; Counsel for state defendants: Ann Woolfolk, Department of Justice, Wilmington, Del.)AB

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