I just had a chance to review the debate from Monday on a bill to limit what information would be available in autopsy reports. (It starts at the 1:14:00 mark on the video replay.)
In the end, after a barrage of questions, the author of House Bill 3155, Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Tuttle, pulled the bill and said she’d try again next year. Capitol reporter Michael McNutt has the story here.
Osborn said the bill was a request from the Grady County District Attorney Bret Burns and was worked on by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the District Attorneys Council and the state Medical Examiner’s office. They believe the media, and by extension, the public, had gotten too many “gory details” from autopsy reports in several recent unsolved murder cases.
HB 3155 would allow a district attorney or law enforcement agency to hold on to details of a homicide until the report has been entered into evidence in court or a suspect has been convicted. From the bill summary:
Clarifies that the Oklahoma Open Record Act does not apply to information in an autopsy report in which the manner of death is homicide or pending until one of the following:
· The autopsy report is admitted into evidence in a court of law;
· The person charged with the homicide is convicted;
· It is determined that the person believed to be the perpetrator of the homicide is deceased;
· The district attorney determines that either no criminal charges will be filed in the matter; or
· The district attorney determines that confidentiality of the information is no longer necessary to preserve the integrity of the investigation.
Opponents said that would give too much power to law enforcement agencies, who are notoriously close-lipped about investigations anyway. The Freedom of Information Oklahoma blog has a good recap of how autopsy reports are used in everyday journalism here. We used them extensively for our award-winning series in 2009 called Dying Too Young.
Osborn faced questions on her bill from both sides of the aisle. A few allies, like Rep. Don Armes, R-Faxon, tried to offer her support, including this exchange:
Armes: Rep. Osborn, what sells newspapers in your mind?
Osborn: Grisly details.
Armes: Do you remember the OJ simpson trial?
Osborn: I do.
Armes: Did that create people like Greta van Susteren and things like that? My question is: Grisly details obviously, wouldn’t you agree, sell newspapers? Does it also help catch the bad guy?
Osborn: No, and a lot of times it does lead to false confessors.
Armes: In a murder trial, especially a grisly murder trial, would you rather sell newspapers or catch the bad guy?
Osborn: Well, I think in the interest of public safety, you’d rather make sure this perpetrator didn’t act on his crime again, and No. 2, if I was the family members, I’d much rather have justice for my deceased loved one.
Still, most of the questions were about transparency, accountability and keeping the information available to families of murder victims. The next speaker of the House, Rep. Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, had some reservations about the structure of the bill and what it would close off:
Steele: Do you feel that by chipping away at the information that is made available to the public that we’re eliminating a layer of accountability that we should probably keep in place?
Osborn: I understand where you’re going and I appreciate the question, but I truly believe that public safety and justice trumps in this one small, gray area of the four or five heinous cold cases in Oklahoma a year.
Steele: Rep. Osborn, in relation to the questions of jeopardizing an investigation or causing the law enforcement agencies to investigate leads that aren’t accurate, wouldn’t you also agree that the public is much more helpful, or at least helpful more times than not, in providing information and data to these law enforcement agencies based on the information they receive from the media?
Osborn: I appreciate that comment, but I will say that I don’t believe that the public necessarily needs to hear that somebody was nearly decapitated and that their hair was burned. I don’t think that that necessarily, one of those items would have helped as much as just hearing that someone was brutally murdered, who it was, when it happened. And I still don’t know that would have helped at all to have the public know those grisly details.
Later on, Rep. Al McAffrey, D-Oklahoma City, asked Osborn about the unsolved murders of two Weelekta girls in 2008. Some of the details of those killings were in autopsy reports, but McAffrey said that contributed little to the case’s unsolved status.
“The big problem was that the crime scene was not protected,” said McAffrey, a funeral director. “Everybody and their dogs were there, so they had nothing to go on. I understand what you’re talking about, but the question is: Is the report from the autopsy really that valuable to keep secrets from the public? That’s really what it comes down to. Because I see autopsy reports quite often, and there’s not much on an autopsy report that really makes a difference in a crime.”
Written by Paul Monies