Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Cincinnati Newspaper May Inspect Pike County Autopsy Reports

The Pike County General Health District wrongfully denied a Cincinnati journalist access to review, but not copy, preliminary autopsy reports of the 2016 murder of eight members of the Rhoden and Gilley families, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled today.

In a per curiam opinion, the Supreme Court reversed a Fourth District Court of Appeals decision in favor of Pike County officials, who claimed a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer was entitled only to a publicly released, heavily redacted version of the reports. The county concealed information, citing two Ohio laws that exclude confidential law enforcement investigatory records from the public.

The opinion noted that the newspaper requested to inspect records that are considered non-public. The Court found that R.C. 313.10(D) carves out an exception that allows a journalist to request the right to inspect “preliminary autopsy and investigative notes and findings, suicide notes, or photographs” made by the coroner or by anyone acting under the coroner’s direction.

“The language of R.C. 313.10(D) does not condition that right of access in any way, and the right of access certainly does not depend on whether the records in question are confidential law-enforcement records,” the opinion stated. “Indeed, the statute accounts for the possibility that the materials might be sensitive materials by denying journalists the ability to copy the materials.”

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Patrick F. Fischer, and Mary DeGenaro joined the opinion. Justice Sharon L. Kennedy concurred in judgment only. Justices Judith L. French and R. Patrick DeWine did not participate in the case.

Newspaper Requests Records
Weeks after the murders of the Rhoden and Gilly family members, Enquirer reporter Kevin Grasha asked the health district, and the Pike County coroner to view the preliminary autopsy reports and the investigative notes and findings related to the family deaths. The Pike County prosecuting attorney, on behalf of the health district, denied the record request.

The newspaper cited R.C. 313.10(D) in a response to the prosecutor. The prosecutor denied the request a second time, and in July 2016, the Enquirer sought a writ of mandamus from the Fourth District to order that the records be made available.

In September 2016, the coroner released redacted versions. In February 2017, the Fourth District ordered the health district to submit the unredacted materials under seal for the court’s review. After its review, the Fourth District ruled the materials were properly withheld because they constituted confidential law enforcement records and were not subject to the journalist exception in R.C. 313.10(D).

The newspaper appealed the decision and the Supreme Court was required to review the case.

Coroner Records Generally Public with Some Exceptions
The opinion noted that R.C. 313.10 states that coroner records, including detailed descriptions of the observations written during the progress of an autopsy, are public records.

However, the law exempts six categories of records as not public:

  • Preliminary autopsy and investigative notes and findings
  • Photography taken by the coroner or at the coroner’s direction
  • Suicide notes
  • Medical and psychiatric records
  • Confidential law enforcement investigatory records
  • Laboratory reports

The Court explained that while the law makes these six types of materials non-public record, R.C. 313.10(D) has specific language that allows journalists to view the first three categories.

“The language of R.C. 313.10(D) is clear: if a journalist submits a proper request to review preliminary autopsy and investigative notes and findings, suicide notes, or photographs of the decedent made by the coroner, the coroner ‘shall’ grant the request,” the opinion stated.

The Court wrote that the Fourth District disregarded the law’s plain language. The coroner argued that the documents are governed by not only R.C. 313.10, but also Ohio’s public records law — R.C. 149.43 — and the office could invoke the law-enforcement record provision in the public records law to deny the newspaper access. The opinion stated that argument was rejected in prior Supreme Court decisions and that position would “swallow the journalist privilege altogether.”

“If a journalist could review only autopsy reports that are public records, then he would have no greater access than the general public, and R.C. 313.10(D) would be a dead letter,” the Court concluded.

The Court granted the Enquirer the writ and the right to inspect the records.

2017-0431. State ex rel. Cincinnati Enquirer v. Pike Cty. Gen. Health Dist., Slip Opinion No. 2018-Ohio-3721.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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