Dispatch editorial: Autopsies are public records

Editorial from The Columbus Dispatch

For the better part of two months, The Dispatch has waged a fight against Ohio’s chief law enforcement officer to get him to comply with state law and release public records.

The newspaper has been flatly denied, then stalled by fruitless mediation before finally being provided last week with the requested documents — which were so heavily redacted as to make them useless. Imagine the first sentence of this editorial with every word blacked out except for “The Dispatch,” and the situation becomes obvious.

The case now heads to the Ohio Supreme Court, where there is a strong likelihood that Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine will be admonished to release the full final autopsy reports of the eight Rhoden family members slaughtered in rural Pike County in April. DeWine’s compliance with public-records law falls far short of what the state requires, as stipulated in a public-records guidebook his own office publishes.

The Dispatch and the Cincinnati Enquirer each have filed lawsuits arguing that these autopsy reports are public records and cannot be withheld or redacted.

Our interest isn’t in lurid detail. Reporters, like police, see enough unimaginable horrors to keep them up at night. Reporters and editors exercise judgment on a daily basis to decide which details are important for the public to know, or which are too offensive or intimate to report.

DeWine, whose office took charge of the investigation, told Dispatch Editor Alan D. Miller that his biggest fear is that release of the autopsy documents would harm the criminal investigation. But police have previously furnished the Dispatch autopsy reports on other cases, hoping to elicit leads.

Public officials don’t get to pick and choose which laws to follow. Allowing these records to be withheld sets a dangerous precedent. What if a mass contagion broke out, and officials decided it would be easier not to alert the public? It is worrisome to establish an exemption that government can use for years to come to withhold information.

We believe DeWine is sincere in his reasons for concealing these public records, but he is misguided.

“There is a strong argument — strong — that the final autopsy report is a public record,” said David Marburger, a lawyer and expert in public-records law.

The victims’ families have been left to imagine the worst about their loved ones’ last moment. The dead range in age from 16 to 44; three young children, including a newborn, were spared.

“At this point,” Tony Rhoden said in late July, “the family just wants answers — answers to anything, you know? We deserve that.”

The public also deserves answers, even if several Rhoden family members — they appear to have been counseled by investigators —have curiously reversed their position on releasing the records.

But the community is also a victim. It too lives in fear.

And far from damaging the investigation, the autopsy reports might help solve the case. It is possible someone could realize they have information that could shed light on what happened and lead law-enforcement to the perpetrators of these brutal, calculated murders.

Information redacted from the reports could tell the public the caliber of the firearms used (indicating the number of shooters from multiple guns), reveal other nonfatal injuries and answer whether the victims were drugged so they couldn’t flee.

By withholding the full autopsy reports, DeWine provokes public suspicion and raises questions about a five-month-long investigation that, to the public’s eye, appears stalled. He should release these records.