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A Public Death: South Carolinians Lose with Judge’s Ruling on Autopsies

A Public Death: South Carolinians Lose with Judge’s Ruling on Autopsies

Picture of William Heisel

The Item in Sumter, South Carolina, is the very definition of a community newspaper.

In fact, it claims to be “South Carolina’s first small town daily newspaper.” It showcases the church directory as prominently as sports on its website. It prints pet obituaries.

The Item also is proving itself to be a champion of free speech and open access to public records in a way that much larger news outlets and professional news organizations have failed.

Jeffrey Collins at the Associated Press wrote a story last week about how hard The Item is fighting to uphold the public’s right to know. A judge in South Carolina decided in a broad ruling that autopsy reports should be kept secret there. Collins framed the issue perfectly:

Most autopsies in South Carolina are paid for by taxpayers, but a state judge has decided they can no longer be reviewed by the public. While the ruling took the media and First Amendment advocates by surprise, it isn't unprecedented. About half of the 50 states severely restrict what can be released from autopsy reports or make them off limits entirely. Much of the debate is over concerns whether an autopsy report is an investigative report that can be reviewed or medical records that should be kept confidential.

Joe Perry at The Item had demanded to see the autopsy of a man shot to death by two Sumter police officers in September 2010. The police had claimed the 25-year-old man – Aaron Leon Jacobs – had pulled a gun.  The Morning News of Florence, S.C., editorialized about the importance of the autopsy results this way:

Yes, the implication of such a request is that something was amiss with the shooting, and the police and others might take offense at that. But even if the newspaper suspected nothing, checking as many sources as possible, compiling as much information as can be compiled, is good journalistic policy. We wish we could do it for every story we cover. Would the report have divulged, or at least pointed to, some sort of foul play? We'll never know. The coroner refused to release it. His stated reasoning: the feelings of the family of the deceased.

The Item has good reason to push for the autopsy. More than a year after the shooting, it obtained a report from the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division that included some of the autopsy information. The report showed that Aaron Leon Jacobs had been shot in the head, back and buttocks. Was the shooting justified? Was Jacobs, indeed, armed? Did it really require four shots to stop him?

Collins wrote:

State law does not have any requirement on what information a coroner should release in a suspicious death, meaning it would be left to the elected officials that serve four-year terms to decide what part of the medical examiner's report should be released and what should be kept private. In the Sumter case, the coroner argued the report should not be released because an autopsy report is a medical record. Along with details on how someone died, autopsy reports usually include the person's medical history, a detailed profile of their vital statistics and documentation of other medical problems that could be unrelated to how someone died, especially in an accident or an act of violence.

The coroner is a health care provider? We have heard this story before in places like Vermont.

In a piece posted on SC Now, the situation was summed up perfectly:

South Carolina Press Association Attorney Jay Bender says the coroner is elected by the people and his reports are public records. He also says it is absurd the coroner calls himself a health care provider when he only treats dead people.

Image by Vancouver Coastal Health via Flickr

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