Coroner, attorney general refuse to release final autopsies in Pike County killings

From The Columbus Dispatch Pike County authorities and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine refused Tuesday to release the final autopsy reports of eight Rhoden family members who were shot to death in April, something which public-records experts say is a mistake.

Pike County Coroner Dr. David Kessler first denied The Dispatch access Friday night and again on Monday, and then wrote in an email Tuesday that he considers the autopsy reports "confidential law enforcement investigatory records." He wrote that their release "might impede the criminal investigation or the families' grieving process."

The coroner offered no case law that gave him the authority to withhold the records, but DeWine's office later cited a 1984 Ohio Supreme Court case in which the court ruled that autopsy reports in a homicide investigation are confidential. The office also cited a section of the Ohio Revised Code that references a coroner's exemption for records that are considered confidential as part of a law enforcement investigation.

"We believe the law says they do not have to be released," DeWine said. He said case law protects such reports for a reason.

Their release, he said, "would damage our ability to solve this case. Our ability to judge the veracity of information coming in, our ability to judge the credibility of information coming in, all goes away once that is public."

Dispatch Editor Alan D. Miller disagrees.

"While we respect what the authorities are saying about the investigation, we see no evidence that this would be disruptive to their investigation, which at this point seems to be going nowhere. Nor have we seen examples of the release of such information affecting similar cases in the past," Miller said.

"Is it conceivable that great public knowledge could help them solve the case? That's possible."

Miller said this case — and the papers request for the records — is not about the media. It's about public access to information.

"We have great respect for the authorities and the work they're doing to try and solve this case. We also believe the law says these records are public, and the attorney general and Pike County authorities don't get to choose what laws they follow."

The attorney general's own handbook on Ohio's public-record laws says that the section of state code that governs a coroner's records now supersedes that 1984 ruling.

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