North Carolina bill seeks to restrict public and media access to criminal autopsy reports

RALEIGH, NC — RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Public and media access to North Carolina autopsy reports related to criminal investigations would be significantly restricted under a bill considered Tuesday by a legislative committee.

The proposal was debated by senators but not voted on. I would explicitly add written autopsy reports from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to the list of documents exempt from public records when they are part of an investigative file in the hands of prosecutors trying to solve a crime. Written reports could be accessed after the investigation or prosecution is complete, one of the bill’s proponents said.

Those reports often provide the public with information about the details of a crime while the case is pending.

The bill would also repeal a state law that had allowed people to inspect and review, but not copy, photographs, videos and autopsy recordings under supervision. Those records would also be considered a prosecutor’s private file if they are part of a criminal investigation.

Robeson County Republican Sen. Danny Britt, a defense attorney and former prosecutor who shepherded the bill, said details were still being worked out among state health officials, a group that represents district attorneys and others. An updated version is likely to emerge next week.

But Britt said it was important that autopsy records of all types, including written reports, be kept out of the public sphere while a possible homicide crime was investigated or prosecuted in the interests of justice.

Releasing details of the autopsy or gaining access to photos or videos of the death review could unfairly taint a case, he said.

“I think due process in court is more important than public knowledge of what happened in relation to someone’s death,” Britt told reporters after the committee meeting. “I also think it’s more important that the person being prosecuted have due process, and that that due process not be denied potentially so that the case is overturned and then the victim doesn’t get the justice they deserve, or the family of the victim”.

When asked by Mecklenburg County Democratic Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed if the bill would also restrict the victim’s family from accessing the reports, Britt said they generally would not have access as a way to prevent images and videos from being released. are shared on social networks. However, they could sit down with a prosecutor to look at the photographs, she said.

The North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys supports changes to access to autopsy records, said Chuck Spahos, the conference’s general counsel. The contents of the prosecutor’s investigative file are already exempt from the public records law, but may be released later.

“We do not hand over the investigative record during a process, and we should not hand over the autopsy record during a process,” Spahos said. “If all that is made public, the case is tried publicly, and that is not fair to the criminal defendant.”

In addition to provisions on autopsy reports, the bill would also add training requirements for county medical examiners and describe in more detail how examiners can request and obtain a deceased person’s personal belongings as evidence. If no changes are made to the bill, the current challenges facing medical examiners would be “much, much more difficult,” Mark Benton, chief deputy secretary for health at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said during remarks. public about the invoice.

The measure would have to pass the Senate and House of Representatives to reach Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk.