COLUMBIA - The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that autopsy reports are not public records, dealing another blow to traditional practices under the state's Freedom of Information law.
The justices ruled 4-1 that autopsies are medical records and fall under privacy provisions of the open records law. The ruling came just four weeks after the justices ruled that public meetings don't have to have a list of topics to be discussed, and if they do have an agenda, it can be changed in the middle of the meeting.
In the latest case, the justices ruled in a lawsuit against the Sumter County Coroner Harvin Bullock by The Sumter Item. The newspaper sued because the coroner refused to release the autopsy report of 25-year-old Aaron Jacobs, who was shot by police in 2010.
Police initially said Jacobs fired on officers, but the autopsy report, obtained from a different source by the newspaper, said there was no gunshot residue on Jacobs' hands and he was shot in the back.
Associate Justice Costa Pleicones dissented, suggesting a coroner could black out medical information that was not relevant to the case. Pleicones said autopsy reports are not one of the things specifically excluded from being released under the open records law.
The newspaper was disappointed with the ruling, pointing out the public might never have learned what really happened in the police shooting without the autopsy report. It also said the justices' assertion that autopsy reports are medical records makes no sense.
"There has never been an autopsy that has ever been performed that improved someone's health," said Braden Bunch, senior news editor for The Sumter Item.
In the majority opinion, Associate Justice Kaye Hearn wrote that while an autopsy report contains relevant information on how someone died in an examination paid for by taxpayers and supervised by an elected official, it also contains all of the dead person's medical history, which is not relevant to the person's death.
The ruling leaves little guidance on what, if anything, coroners release to the public about suspicious deaths in their counties.
There are some items that will remain public, like the coroner's report, which is similar to a police report, where the coroner takes the results of the autopsy and summarizes them, said Cherokee County Coroner Dennis Fowler, who is president of the South Carolina Coroner's Association.
The association wants to be as transparent as possible while protecting privacy, Fowler said. It backed Bullock and is pleased with the court's ruling.
"An autopsy report describes the internal organs of an individual. That's very private," Fowler said.
Hearn's ruling predicted there might be a public outcry over the decision, but directed the anger toward getting the Legislature to change the law.
It was similar language that the Supreme Court used four weeks ago when it ruled that public meetings don't have to have agendas because of a specific phrase in the FOI law that reads: "Agenda, if any, for regularly scheduled meetings must be posted."
The justices ruled "if any" means the law did not require an agenda, overturning decades of common practice in South Carolina.
Jay Bender, the media lawyer who represented the newspaper, said the two recent decisions "seem to reverse a 30-year trend of construing the Freedom of Information Act to enhance the public's ability to learn of public business."
Whether autopsy reports are public records varies widely across the country. About 15 states allow the public release of reports. About a half-dozen other states allow the release of reports not being used as part of a criminal investigation, according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Most of the rest completely restrict the release of the information.
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