Portions of a county coroner’s autopsy reports that are part of an open homicide investigation are not public records and not available for public inspection until investigators release them, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.
In a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled the Pike County Coroner’s Office properly denied the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Columbus Dispatch unredacted versions of the autopsy reports for eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families who were murdered in April 2016. Writing for the Court majority, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor stated the legislature amended the law regarding coroner records in 2009 to exempt “confidential law enforcement investigatory records (CLEIR),” and that the portions redacted by the coroner met the exemption.
In separate dissenting opinions, Justices Sharon L. Kennedy and Patrick F. Fischer wrote that lawmakers clearly made autopsy reports public records and the exception to disclosure for confidential law enforcement investigative records does not apply to the materials the coroner refused to reveal.
The chief justice’s opinion was joined by Justice William M. O’Neill. It was also joined by Eighth District Court of Appeals Judge Frank D. Celebrezze, sitting for Justice Judith L. French, and Twelfth District Court of Appeals Judge Robin N. Piper, sitting for Justice R. Patrick DeWine.
Justice Terrence O’Donnell joined both of the dissenting opinions.
Newspapers Seek Autopsy Reports
After the Rhoden family members were discovered murdered, the Hamilton County chief deputy coroner conducted autopsies on behalf of Pike County. The Pike County coroner’s office received final autopsy reports in July 2016. Within days of the delivery of the final autopsies, reporters from the Enquirer and Dispatch made public record requests of Pike County Coroner Dr. David Kessler, who denied the requests. Kessler cited R.C. 313.10, which references a portion of the Ohio public records act, R.C. 149.43. The coroner stated the final autopsy reports were exempt as CLEIR under the law.
Three days after the denial, the Enquirer sought a writ of mandamus from the Supreme Court to direct the coroner to release the reports, and weeks later, the Dispatch made a similar request. After both suits were filed, Kessler and the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, which is leading the murder investigation, released redacted copies of the eight autopsies.
After the partial release, the coroner sought to dismiss the case, but the Court rejected the request and asked the parties to submit material and briefs to support their legal arguments. The Court did not conduct oral arguments for the cases.
The coroner submitted unredacted copies of the final reports to the Court to review under seal, and the Court denied a request by the Dispatch for access to the sealed reports. The Court issued its opinion today after its review of the reports.