SUMTER, S.C. -- A Sumter newspaper is appealing a judge’s ruling that autopsy reports in South Carolina are not public records.

A lawyer for The Item said the judge was wrong to rule that autopsy reports are medical records that are required to be kept private under state law.

Autopsies are like death certificates and “cannot be considered `medical records in the normal sense’ in that they are not prepared in connection with a course of treatment of an injury or an illness,” attorney Jay Bender wrote in his appeal for the newspaper.

Bender suggests if there are concerns with keeping medical information not related to the death private, that portion of the report can be kept out while the rest is released.

The dispute started when Sumter County Coroner Harvin Bullock refused to release the autopsy report of a man killed by Sumter police officers after the newspaper requested it under South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act.

Bullock said he understood why the newspaper is appealing, but he stands by his decision that autopsies contain medical records. 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.

“There’s nothing clandestine about my office. We tell the families what they want to know and we release as much information as we can,” Bullock said. “But once you do it, once you release it, it’s there for everybody. It’s a Pandora’s Box. If you make them public record, anybody could get anyone else’s autopsy report.”

When the reporter from the Sumter newspaper got the information from another source, it contradicted what officials said in the days after the shooting, including whether the suspect ever fired a gun.

“The Sumter case shows the true meaning of why the public needs access to this information. It involves a police shooting and unanswered questions that need to be brought to light,” said South Carolina Press Association Executive Director Bill Rogers.

The association’s Freedom of Information fund is helping with the appeal.

State law does not have any requirement on what information a coroner should release in a suspicious death, meaning if the ruling stands, 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.