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Public Information or Private Records? | SC Criminal Defense Lawyers

SC Criminal Defense Lawyers

SC Criminal Defense LawyersAutopsy records will now be sealed in South Carolina.

A state judged rule that even though taxpayers fund autopsies, the public can no longer view the records.

South Carolina is not the only state that restricts the viewing of autopsy records. About half of the 50 states restrict the release of certain types of information from the autopsy report or prohibit the release all together. The debate as to whether autopsy records should be public information stems from whether an autopsy is an investigative report that is subject to review or medical records that are to be kept confidential. Some fear what people may do with autopsy records if released, and others feel the public has a right to autopsy records.

The Autopsy Debate

The ruling came as result of a case involving the autopsy report of a man shot to death by police. The Item of Sumter, a Sumter newspaper, asked for the autopsy report after receiving information from another source, which contradicted statements by officials. The issue revolved around whether the suspect ever fired a gun. Jay Bender, attorney for the newspaper, said this was yet another type of work conducted with taxpayer money that will remain secret.

Bender questioned the ruling stating, “Who provides oversight in these cases where there are deaths caused by public officials?”

Prior to the ruling, state law did not have any requirement on what information a coroner could or should release in regards to suspicious deaths. What information is released would be up to the elected officials.

Those who believe autopsy records should be withheld from the public argue that those records contain personal information, not just information surrounding how the person died. Autopsies include a person’s medical history, a detailed profile of their vital statistics and documentation of other medical problems that could be unrelated to how the person died. Richland Country Coroner Gary Watts said, “The public certainly wants to know what’s going on when someone dies unexpectedly and we want to release that to them. But there’s a lot in those reports that aren’t related to that incident.”

Watts states that he has never released a full autopsy report and supports the judge’s ruling.

Currently only about 15 states across the US allow the public release of an autopsy report. Six other states allow the release of autopsy records as long as they are not in use as part of a criminal investigation.

The Role of the Internet

This is not the first time the debate as to whether to release autopsy records or not has been in the spotlight. Following NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001, Florida among other states amended their Freedom of Information Act to prohibit pictures from Earnhardt’s autopsy from being released, as well as the release of written reports. Florida is home to Daytona International Speedway, the site of Earnhardt’s premature death.

With the wide accessibility of the internet, many fear that information contained in an autopsy report could be published without discretion.  Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, states, “One of the lurking issues in this debate is always the fear that someone is going to start and make entertainment out of gruesome photos.” He states that the fear that one person could misuse autopsy information should not keep autopsy records from everyone.

Those, like Bender, who believe that autopsy records should be released, cite one famous case, John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Kenneth Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition states, “Just think about how important the autopsy information was in the Kennedy assassination and how questions still linger today because how it was handled.”

About the Strom Law Firm

Founded in 1996 by former U.S. Attorney, Pete Strom, the Strom Law Firm, LLC  has expanded from its original focus on representing individuals and businesses in South Carolina to a firm that now represents clients in complex civil and criminal cases throughout the Southeastern U.S. and nationwide. Call one of our SC criminal defense lawyers today for a free consultation. 803.252.4800.



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