Should autopsy reports be public? Justices to decide - - Columbia, South Carolina

Should autopsy reports be public? Justices to decide

Aaron Jacobs Aaron Jacobs

South Carolina Supreme Court justices are deciding whether autopsy reports can be released to the public under the Freedom of Information Act or if they are considered a medical record.

First Amendment attorney Jay Bender argued autopsy reports should be released to the public to protect open government. The opposition states that autopsy reports are a medical record and are protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, adding the release of an autopsy report could be offensive to the deceased's family.

Bender represented Joe Perry and Osteen Publishing Company, which owns The Sumter Item newspaper, in the Supreme Court hearing. Attorney Andrew Lindemann represented Sumter County Coroner Harvin Bullock.

Wednesday's hearing came after a reporter requested an autopsy report from Bullock, but was denied.

In 2010, 25-year-old Aaron Jacobs was shot and killed by Sumter Police when officers were responding to a carjacking report. Police said Jacobs matched the description of the carjacking suspect. After speaking with Jacobs, officers said he pulled away from them, at which time, they spotted a gun tucked in his pants.

Police said Jacobs pointed a gun at the officer before the policeman opened fire.

A different man was later charged with the carjacking.

The Sumter Item reporter Joe Perry requested Jacobs' autopsy report from Bullock, who declined the FOIA, stating that the autopsy report is a medical record and not open to the public. Perry and Osteen Publishing filed a lawsuit to get access to the autopsy report. A civil court ruled in Bullock's favor in 2012. 

In addition to requesting the autopsy report from the coroner, The Item reporter also filed a request with the S.C. Law Enforcement Division. SLED gave a copy of an autopsy report, but without the original, Bender is not sure it's the full report.

Based on the report from SLED, Bender said inconsistencies were found between what police said and what was written on the copied document.

"There were several glaring and major inconsistencies between what was reported and what police say happened," Bender said. "The eyewitness said the man was running away from police at the time. There were gunshots in the back of his head."

Bender explains that to maintain an open government, all documents given to public officials should be available to the public, with the exception of national security information.

"To have confidence in our institutions, the public needs to be able to see the records that reveal the workings of our system," he said.

"People who are in office think they are our superiors, and they are entitled to control what information we know," Bender continued. "To them, information is power. They know something we don't know."

WIS left a message with Lindemann's office, but has not received a response at this time.

"I thought the Court was focused, which was a challenge I'm sure because two justices were running for position of Chief Justice today," Bender said. "Both asked questions and were attentive. I thought it was a good lively argument."

Bender expects the five justices to release an opinion within four months. WIS will keep you updated.

"I'm hopeful that this court, with its long record in favor of open government, will come down on the side of openness," he said. 

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