Some autopsies can be kept secret, court says

Saturday, February 7, 2009, San Francisco Chronicle © 2009

(02-06) 14:28 PST SACRAMENTO -- In a ruling that alarmed some open-government advocates, a state appeals court said counties can withhold autopsies and other coroner's reports from the public if they are part of a criminal investigation likely to lead to prosecution.

The decision by the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento is the first in California to exempt any category of coroner's reports from disclosure under the state Public Records Act, which makes most state and local government documents accessible.

The law, while promoting public access to government records, recognizes the need for secrecy in police investigations. That exception protects witnesses and victims, "encourages candor ... and in effect makes such investigations possible," the three-judge appeals panel said Wednesday.

Kathryn Dixon, a writer who sought the autopsy from the El Dorado County coroner for a planned book about a local murder case, said the ruling could keep the public from learning "the basic facts of a suspicious death." Dixon, who represented herself in the case, said she will appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Bad precedent set

The head of a news media organization said the ruling sets a bad precedent.

"This opinion makes it impossible for the public, the press or anybody else to monitor the performance of the coroner," said Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition.

But Edward Knapp, the deputy El Dorado County counsel who represented the coroner, said that only a small percentage of autopsies are related to criminal investigations. The rest will remain public, he said.

Murder conviction

The case involved the murder of Elizabeth Cloer, 21, whose body, battered and shot to death, was found in 1971 in a field in Cameron Park, a small town just east of Folsom Lake. Local authorities reopened the case in 2002 based on DNA evidence and charged a prison inmate named Phillip Arthur Thompson. He was convicted of murder in April 2008 and has appealed.

Dixon, who covered Thompson's case on her Web site,, was denied access to Cloer's autopsy by the county sheriff-coroner's office. In ruling against her, the appeals court said the Public Records Act exempts law enforcement "investigatory files" from disclosure, which covers other agencies in addition to police.

Although autopsies and other coroner's reports are government records subject to public disclosure, Justice Rodney Davis said, such records can be withheld when they concern a homicide with a "concrete and definite prospect" of prosecution.

Read the ruling

The ruling in Dixon vs. Superior Court can be read at

E-mail Bob Egelko at .

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