The battle over the release of former Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Scott Schoeneweis’ wife’s death records must continue in a lower court, an Arizona appeals court said this week.
Schoeneweis’ wife Gabrielle was found dead on May 20 after overdosing on cocaine and lidocaine. The pitcher asked the court not to release her death records, but Commissioner Barbara Hamner denied his request on July 9.
An appeals court, however, said that death certificates are not subject to public inspection under state open records law, which specifically exempts them, and autopsy reports may require special court proceedings before they can be publicly released.
The three-judge panel ruled that despite the documents’ status as public records, the lower court should have conducted a private judicial hearing on the autopsy records to weigh Schoeneweis’ privacy concerns against the public interest in disclosure.
The public interest in release, however, is often heightened when records involve a death caused by potential criminal conduct, Judge Peter B. Swann wrote in the opinion, which also stated that Gabrielle Schoeneweis’ drug use may have harmed another person.
“This case involves a death and potential injuries to another that occurred as a result of potential or apparent unlawful conduct, and the government’s response to that situation merits public scrutiny,” Swann wrote.
The appeals court sent the case back to the lower court for further review, although the cause of death Schoeneweis sought to keep confidential has already been disclosed in the opinion.
The court held that cause of death is not privileged medical information because the statute exempting medical records refers only to “patient diagnosis or treatment."
The panel stressed, however, that Schoeneweis’ fame did not factor into the decision. “The Public Records Law serves the primary purpose of ensuring that the people are able to monitor the activities of their government, not the lives of their fellow citizens,” Swann wrote. “The ‘public interest’ is not synonymous with ‘public curiosity.’”