The S.C. Supreme Court decided last week that autopsy reports are not considered public records and therefore not subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act, a decision Aiken County Coroner Tim Carlton said he agrees with.
The justices ruled 4-1 that autopsies are medical records and are exempt from disclosure under the state Freedom of Information Act.
The ruling came in a lawsuit brought against Sumter County Coroner Harvin Bullock by The Sumter Item newspaper.
The newspaper sued Bullock because he refused to release the autopsy report of 25-year-old Aaron Jacobs, who was shot to death by police in 2010.
Police initially said Jacobs fired on officers, according to The Associated Press. But the autopsy report, obtained by the newspaper from a different source, indicated there was no gunshot residue on Jacobs’ hands, and that he was shot in the back.
Aiken County Coroner Tim Carlton said he agreed that autopsy reports are medical records.
“I think it is, to a certain extent, a medical procedure. It’s conducted by a trained physician,” he said of an autopsy.
The justices wrote in their ruling that an autopsy is a “thorough and invasive inquiry into the body of the decedent” that reveals not only the cause of death, “but also the decedent’s general medical condition at the time of death, including information unrelated to the cause of death.”
“This is the type of information that would necessarily be contained in medical records when the person is alive,” the ruling stated. “We decline to allow a person’s death to change the nature of the record into one subject to disclosure under the FOIA.”
In his 10 years as coroner, Carlton said he’s only once been asked for an autopsy report by a news agency.
“We don’t typically release that. It’s a pretty comprehensive report,” he said. “I’ve never had a news agency articulate why they would want such a comprehensive report.”
When someone dies from a vehicle accident or a homicide, Carlton sends out a press release to media organizations with general details about the person’s cause of death.
He said the court’s ruling won’t change that practice.
Carlton said a news agency is welcome to submit a FOIA request for autopsy reports, but his office will respond that they are not subject to public records requests.
He added that a news agency can obtain the report through the family of a decedent, but that it would be up to the family.
In 2010, a Spartanburg TV station requested the autopsy report of a mixed martial arts fighter who died during a match at the USC Aiken Convocation Center. Carlton said he couldn’t release the findings at that time and referred the station to the victim’s family, who turned the report over to them.
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.