Pennsylvania high court rules autopsy records public

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the autopsy report for a murdered Easton police office was a matter of public record. Two newspapers, the Morning Call of Allentown and The Express-Times of Easton, had sued the county coroner for withholding the record in February of 2006. –DB

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Jan 23, 2009
By Ahnalese Rushmann

In a significant public records victory for two state newspapers, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled Thursday that autopsy records should be available to the public.

Reversing a lower court decision, the high court found that autopsy reports are indeed official records or papers subject to disclosure, though trial courts still have judicial discretion over the material in some cases.

The Morning Call of Allentown and The Express-Times of Easton both sued Lehigh County coroner Scott Grim after he refused to disclose the autopsy reports for a slain Easton police officer, whose death was ruled a homicide, according to court records.

Jim Deegan, managing editor of The Express-Times, and Joseph McDonald, a reporter for The Morning Call, each separately requested the records in February 2006, according to court records. “Grim declined on the ground that it was not one of the ‘official records and papers’ that Section 1251 of the Coroner’s Act requires every coroner to deposit” with the clerk, the Supreme Court opinion said.

According to Section 1251 of the Coroner’s Act, “Every coroner, within 30 days after the end of each year, shall deposit all of his official records and papers for the preceding year in the office of the prothonotary for the inspection of all persons interested therein.”

Representatives from the two newspapers filed court papers asking Grim to hand his official records for the year, including his report on Officer Sollman, over to the county clerk. The trial court ordered Grim to do so, and he appealed.

The Commonwealth Court reversed the order, ruling that autopsy reports “are not official records and papers of a coroner under Section 1251.”

Writing for the majority in Easton Publishing Company v. Grim and The Morning Call Inc. v. Scott Grim, Justice Seamus P. McCaffery said the court acknowledged the lower court’s concerns over privacy, particularly with graphic photos, but said those concerns did not “justify reclassifying autopsy reports from ‘official’ records to ‘unofficial’ ones.”

Morning Call editor Ardith Hilliard, in the paper, applauded the Supreme Court ruling.

“The State Supreme Court clearly understands the compelling importance of the public’s right to know rather than having that right be subject to the whim of, in this case, individual coroners,” Hilliard said in The Morning Call.

Malcolm Gross is the attorney for The Morning Call. The Express-Times was represented by Douglas J. Smillie.