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A proposed NC law would limit family and public access to death records

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A proposed NC law would limit family and public access to death records

May 21, 2024 | 4:13 pm ET
By Lynn Bonner
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A proposed NC law would limit family and public access to death records
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Photo: Getty Images

Autopsy results would be kept secret from the public in cases under criminal investigation, under a proposed change to North Carolina law discussed Tuesday. 

Autopsy results in cases that could be homicides would not be released until criminal charges are filed, said Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican. 

Family members would not have access to autopsy reports, but district attorneys would be able to describe their contents to family members of the deceased. 

Under current law, the text of official autopsy reports are public records.

Preventing the public from seeing autopsy reports is important to due process and to defendants’ and victims’ rights, Britt said. 

Publicly released autopsy results have tainted jury pools, said Britt, though he could not recall specific instances.

Cases in which law enforcement officers are involved in the death of members of the public would be included in the prohibition on making autopsy reports public, he said. 

“As far as the autopsy reports and any information the medical examiner’s office has, it would delay information they get from the medical examiner’s office, yes,” Britt said. “I think it’s in the public interest for cases to be prosecuted adequately. I think it’s in the public interest for defendants to receive their due process more so than the public to know what happened.”

Kerwin Pittman of Emancipate NC said Britt and other gatekeepers of the criminal justice system are preventing the public from obtaining information it has the right to know. 

“To shield those things from individuals shows a lack of compassion for the citizens he’s supposed to serve,” Pittman said. 

The proposal would also restrict access to autopsy photographs, video, and audio recordings while criminal investigations are ongoing. 

Current law allows members of the public to inspect photos and recordings, though members of the public cannot obtain copies. 

Over the years, the legislature has been drawing a tighter curtain over what had been public records, reducing government transparency. 

Last year, the legislature exempted itself from public records law. 

In 2020, the legislature passed a bill that would have kept death investigation records in the medical examiner’s possession secret. After widespread criticism, Gov. Roy Cooper successfully vetoed the bill.

The Senate Judiciary Committee discussed but did not vote on the expanded limits to public records that were added to House Bill 250, which originally modified the “death by distribution” law. Death by distribution allows charges against those who supply drugs to people who use them and die. Autopsies are required in those cases. A change to the House bill would give district attorneys 72 hours to tell a medical examiner that an autopsy is needed. 

The state Department of Health and Human Services and the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys have been working to refine the bill’s language. 

The medical examiner system is facing challenges, said Mark Benton, DHHS chief deputy secretary. “This bill as currently written would make those challenges much more difficult,” he said.