Bill seeks limits on autopsy reports

Public's access to text of records would be denied

January 18, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

The death of NASCAR racing's Dale Earnhardt, and the ensuing controversy when a Florida newspaper tried to obtain his autopsy photographs, has prompted a move to restrict public access to autopsy reports in Maryland.

Autopsy photos are confidential in Maryland, but the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has asked the General Assembly to pass a law exempting the text of autopsy reports from the state's public information act.

If the bill is passed, only relatives of the deceased, hospitals, police and other government officials would be allowed to obtain a medical examiner's report. The reports, written if an autopsy is required, provide details of the circumstances surrounding a person's death.

The reports have been public documents since 1939, but state health officials worry the often graphic reports can be read on the Internet.

Dr. David R. Fowler, acting chief medical examiner, said the issue came to a head last year when hundreds of Maryland residents wrote to Gov. Parris N. Glendening, upset that the Orlando Sentinel was trying to obtain Earnhardt's autopsy photos.

Earnhardt, popular among NASCAR fans, died Feb. 18 after a crash at the Daytona 500. The Sentinel sought access to his autopsy report and photos for an independent review of why the racing star died.

But many Earnhardt fans objected to what they saw as an invasion of his family's privacy. The Florida legislature passed an emergency law in March restricting access to autopsy photographs in that state without a court order.

"It really brought home to us the significant number of people who were concerned about this," Fowler said. "The average person in Maryland is mortified that this type of information can be released."

Fowler testified in support of the bill yesterday at a hearing before the House Environmental Matters Committee.

Media objections

But several representatives of media organizations, including The Sun and The Washington Post, said the reports should remain public to foster open government.

"These autopsy reports have been available from the beginning," said James J. Doyle, a lobbyist for the Maryland-Delaware-D.C Press Association. Carol D. Melamed, a vice president of The Washington Post, testified that autopsy reports were instrumental in the paper's recent examination of police shootings in Prince George's County.

In one case, the paper used autopsy results to rebut the police department's claim that an officer shot a suspect who attacked the officer. Instead, the paper discovered the suspect had been shot 13 times in the back as he was lying face down on the floor, Melamed said.

"The autopsy information was the only way to check the police veracity of the deaths," Melamed said.

`Of no public value'

The testimony from media representatives prompted an emotional response from Del. George W. Owings III, a Calvert County Democrat.

Owings began reading a 24-year-old woman's autopsy report, describing how the woman's body was covered in maggots and giving the location of her tattoos.

"This does not belong in my hands or anybody's hands," Owings said. "This is of no public value."

Doyle countered that the media limits what it reports from autopsy results.

After the hearing, Owings apologized for his graphic comments and said he could support an amendment to give the media access to the reports.

"That is not who I am after," said Owings, explaining that he objects to "sickos" who troll Internet sites for autopsy reports.

Representatives of the life insurance industry, private investigators and public defenders also testified, seeking amendments to the bill to permit them access to the reports.

"Obviously this bill needs some work if it's going to pass," said Del. John A. Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the House Environmental Matters Committee. He forwarded the bill to the Health subcommittee for further review.

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