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Proposed North Carolina law would limit public and family access to death records • NC Newsline

Autopsy results would be kept secret from the public in cases under criminal investigation, under a proposed change to North Carolina law discussed Tuesday.

Autopsy results in cases that could be homicides will not be released until criminal charges are filed, said Sen. Danny Britt, R-Robeson County.

Relatives would not have access to the autopsy reports, but district attorneys could describe their contents to the deceased’s relatives.

Under current law, the text of official autopsy reports are public records.

Preventing the public from seeing autopsy reports is important for due process and for the rights of defendants and victims, Britt said.

Publicly released autopsy results have tainted juries, Britt said, although he could not recall specific cases.

Cases where law enforcement officers are involved in the deaths of members of the public would fall under the ban on making autopsy reports public, he said.

“As far as the autopsy reports and any information that the medical examiner’s office has, it would delay the information that they receive from the medical examiner’s office, yes,” Britt said. “I believe it is in the public interest that cases are prosecuted properly. “I think it is in the public interest for the accused to receive due process rather than for the public to know what happened.”

Kerwin Pittman of Emancipate NC said Britt and other gatekeepers of the criminal justice system are preventing the public from getting information they have a right to know.

“Protecting those things from individuals shows a lack of compassion for the citizens it is supposed to serve,” Pittman said.

The proposal would also restrict access to photographs, videos and audio recordings of autopsies while criminal investigations are underway.

Current law allows the public to inspect photographs and recordings, although the public cannot obtain copies.

Over the years, the legislature has drawn a tighter veil over what had been public records, reducing government transparency.

Last year, the legislature exempted itself from the public records law.

In 2020, the legislature passed a bill that would have kept secret death investigation records in the possession of the medical examiner. After widespread criticism, Governor Roy Cooper successfully vetoed the bill.

The Senate Judiciary Committee discussed, but did not vote on, expanded limits on public records that were added to House Bill 250, which originally amended the “death by distribution” law. Death by distribution allows charges to be filed against those who supply drugs to people who use them and die. In these cases, autopsies are required. A change in the House bill would give district attorneys 72 hours to tell a medical examiner that an autopsy is necessary.

The state Department of Health and Human Services and the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys have been working to refine the bill’s language.

The medical examiner system faces challenges, said Mark Benton, chief deputy secretary of DHHS. “This bill, as currently written, would make those challenges much more difficult,” he said.