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Privacy rights of dead do not protect autopsy information

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   DELAWARE   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   June 9, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   DELAWARE   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   June 9, 2005

Privacy rights of dead do not protect autopsy information

  • In an unusual open records case, the government is trying to release information from autopsy reports that an individual wants cloaked.

June 9, 2005  ·   Family members cannot assert a dead person’s privacy rights to prevent the release of an autopsy performed on that person, a Delaware Chancery Court judge has ruled in a case involving a man found dead in a burned car in February.

Neither state law nor previous court rulings provide a right to prevent the release of those records, Vice Chancellor Stephen P. Lamb in Wilmington wrote in his May 27 opinion, denying a preliminary injunction sought by the man’s widow. Lisa Lawson hoped to prevent Rehoboth Beach Police Chief Keith Banks from issuing a press release containing information from her husband’s autopsy.

The police chief proposed the press release to “clarify the situation, and dispel certain rumors,” according to the ruling. In what the judge said was a “crucial” distinction from some federal Freedom of Information Act cases, such as one that sought X-rays and photographs taken during the autopsy of President John F. Kennedy, this case involves the government pushing to release the records, not prevent their disclosure.

Lawson’s husband Duane, the owner of a local Gold’s Gym, was found dead in his burned BMW in the parking garage of a hotel in Rehoboth Beach, The Associated Press reported. Both Rehoboth Beach police and state fire marshall have determined no foul play was involved, according to the ruling.

Officials have not released the autopsy results pending Lawson’s expected appeal, the AP reported.

Members of the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association and the AP had attempted to intervene in the case, but their motion was denied. In an interview Wednesday, Dennis Forney, publisher of the Cape Gazette, a newspaper covering Rehoboth Beach and one of the papers which sought to intervene, said the case was about the “free flow of information.”

“To me, it’s not necessarily a sensational story at this point. It’s gone beyond the actual occurrence to become a problem of just what information is available to the public and which information is not,” Forney said. “And that’s of course the nut of the whole matter. When we get the autopsy information, it very likely will be placed as a news brief on our third or fourth page.”

While he recognizes that the Lawson family is caught in a difficult set of circumstances, he said, he questions whether the rights of the family should supercede the rights of the community if the released information might help it protect itself in the future.

No ruling was made about whether the autopsy information may be exempt from the disclosure requirements of the state’s Freedom of Information Act, since Lamb said both sides interpret that law as allowing autopsy information to be kept secret. The attorney for Banks, however, disagreed, telling AP that Banks believes the autopsy results are public record and that the vice chancellor must have misunderstood his position.

(Lawson v. Meconi; Counsel: James. J. Hanley, Del. Dep’t of Justice, Wilmington, for state defendants; Walter W. Speakman Jr., Dover, Del. for Banks)TS

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