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Autopsies are subject to public release, says Pa. high court

By Associated Press
01.23.09

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Autopsy records should be generally available to the public and should be released by county coroners, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The 5-1 ruling in Penn Jersey Advance v. Grim resulted from efforts by two newspapers to obtain the autopsy report for an Easton police officer shot and killed inside headquarters in 2005.

The decision clears the way for The Morning Call of Allentown and The Express-Times of Easton to obtain the autopsy report on Officer Jesse Sollman. They had sued over Lehigh County Coroner Scott Grim’s refusal to release it.

The court majority said judges still have discretion to protect autopsy reports from being disclosed.

“For example, if graphic photographs or items of information subject to a claim of privilege are included as part of an autopsy report, anyone seeking to protect an interest in such material, and having standing to do so, can seek appropriate relief from the trial court,” wrote Justice Seamus P. McCaffery.

Sollman, 36, had been cleaning his weapon in a gun-cleaning room when he was shot in the back by Officer Matthew Renninger. A grand jury subsequently ruled the shooting negligent but unintentional and said criminal charges were not warranted. Renninger retired from the force in 2006.

“I think it’s a major victory for public information — that the high court in Pennsylvania has ruled that this is public information, which is really what we’ve maintained from the beginning,” said Joseph P. Owens, editor of The Express-Times.

Morning Call editor Ardith Hilliard said the paper intended to renew its request for the records with Grim.

“Access to original information, as opposed to any information that is filtered through the prism of public officials, and therefore becomes secondhand, is valuable to the public and allows the public and the press to make its own — or our own — assessment of what occurred,” she said.

In a footnote, McCaffery noted that the state’s Right-to-Know Law that took effect earlier this month says autopsy records are not subject to disclosure, but also says the new law does not trump other state laws. The newspapers sought access under the Coroner’s Act, which requires coroners to deposit their “official records and papers” with the courthouse prothonotary for the year at the end of the following January.

McCaffery said the court expressed no opinion about the relationship between the Coroner’s Act and the Right-to-Know Law.

Melissa Bevan Melewsky, an attorney with the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, said the Right-to-Know Law does not apply in this case.

“To the extent that a more specific law makes a record public, that law wins,” she said. “And in this case the Coroner’s Act is a more specific law,” she said.

In the lone dissent, Justice J. Michael Eakin said the majority did not offer any guidance about the sort of circumstances or necessity that a judge can cite to withhold autopsy records.

“Requiring the public exposition of every detail of the body borders on abominable; matters having nothing to do with cause and manner of death should remain private, and not be routinely disclosed,” Eakin wrote.

Melewsky said similar access exists in other states. “And the sky hasn’t fallen there,” she said.

A message left for Grim at his office was not returned in time for this story.


Previous
Pa. daily seeks autopsy report on slain policeman
Newspaper asks state court to order release of results from autopsy of officer killed during training exercise, but coroner says all info that is public has already been disclosed. 02.23.06

Related

Del. Supreme Court supports widow against autopsy release

Justices conclude news media have no right to copies of report on suspicious death of businessman. 04.04.06

Gov. Bush vetoes bill requiring prompt replies to records requests
Florida renews law allowing public-records exemption for autopsy photos, increases penalties for protests at military funerals. 06.21.06

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