A state newspaper leader argues that coroner documents must stay in the public domain.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- The controversy surrounding the release of autopsy pictures of race-car driver Dale Earnhardt has Ohio's county coroners looking to hold up a shield of privacy in front of certain documents.
The Ohio State Coroners Association plans to seek legislation declaring suicide notes and autopsy photographs to be private documents that are not subject to Ohio's open-records law.
"We're not trying to put a lid on the media by any stretch of the imagination," said David P. Corey, association executive director. "All we're doing is protecting the person who is dead, No. 1, and their family."
The issue came to the fore after the death of Earnhardt in the Daytona 500 NASCAR race last year. A Florida newspaper wanted copies of Earnhardt's autopsy photographs. Earnhardt's family vehemently opposed the request, saying it violated their right to privacy.
The Florida Legislature responded by passing a law slamming the door on all such requests, making those documents private.
Corey said the issue has been simmering among coroners for years and was discussed again at the statewide coroners' conference in the spring. They'll work on it this year and probably seek its passage early next year.
Under Ohio law, anything generated by the coroner during a death investigation is a public record once the investigation is complete, said Mahoning County Coroner David Kennedy. That includes suicide notes and autopsy photographs.
Anyone who wants to see those things need only ask, and the coroner must make them available.
"I think most coroners feel the way I do," Kennedy said. "You have to make those things public, but you just feel down in your heart that it's very wrong."
Requests for autopsy photographs are commonly received from prosecutors and defense lawyers in murder cases, Kennedy said. Requests to see suicide notes are rare.
"You don't get that many requests. But when you do get them, it would just put the families through hell," Kennedy said. That's why he supports the idea to shield those documents from the public.
Photographs are taken during each autopsy in case they are needed for courtroom testimony and because they are sometimes needed for insurance purposes, Kennedy said.
As public records, they are subject to public review and potential publication in the press. The same goes for suicide notes. That's what concerns Corey and is why the state group wants a change made.
"What's the purpose of publishing an autopsy photo or a suicide note?" Corey said. "What's the purpose of the next-door neighbor being able to see them?"
Not necessarily published
But Frank Deaner, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said that's not reason enough to take the records out of the public domain. The photographs and notes should remain public records, he said.
"Just because a media person asks for those things doesn't mean they will be published," Deaner said.
Corey said, however, the Florida law goes too far, making the records off-limits under all circumstances.
The state coroners association had asked a Florida medical examiner to come up to give a presentation on investigation of drownings. He couldn't do it, though, because the law prevented him from using photographs, even for education.
"That's ridiculous," Corey said.
Deaner said that's the danger that comes with exempting specific items from public view.
"Once you do that, they cannot be released. Period," Deaner said.
Dr. William A. Graham, Columbiana County coroner, said that's a chance he's willing to take. Like Kennedy, he thinks the notes and pictures should not be public.
"As it stands now, it's possible to get the notes or pictures and make a sensation," Graham said. "I don't see any need for public exposure to internal records of the coroner's office."
Laws affecting press
The press, though, is governed by libel and slander laws, and by the individual-taste standards of the community it serves, Deaner said.
He said he understands the coroners' concern for victims' families but said the press has an obligation to serve as government watchdog.
"We are fact-checkers and verifiers. We can only do that by having access," Deaner said. "There will be sensitive arguments on both sides of this issue."
Dr. Ted Soboslay, Trumbull County coroner, said it's too soon to comment on the legislative effort because the proposed law hasn't even been written.