Cold case autopsy in the Betty Cloer murder case remains sealed ... for now by Eric Laughlin

By Eric Laughlin | Mountain Democrat staff writer | June 24, 2008 15:52

The long-sealed autopsy report of Betty Marie Cloer, the young woman murdered by Phillip Thompson in 1971, is to made public following an El Dorado County judge’s order released this week.

Superior Court Judge Daniel B. Proud’s order to the Sheriff’s Department to release the report comes after a state appellate court writ of mandate directing him to either release the report or show cause as to why not by July 2.

Proud, who had previously ruled in favor of the sheriff to keep the report sealed, chose not to respond by the court’s July deadline and ordered the report to be made public.

The fight to obtain a public copy of the autopsy document was initiated by former attorney and Bay Area alternative journalist Kate Dixon. She has argued that the public has the right to know what’s in the report, especially, she said, because the report was not introduced to jurors in Thompson’s trial.

But Dixon will not be getting the report any time soon, at least not without another battle. One of El Dorado County’s top lawyers, Chief Assistant County Counsel Ed Knapp, said the Sheriff’s Department will not release the report because Proud’s order is procedurally incorrect.

Although the appeal’s court writ states clearly that it is Proud, and not the Sheriff’s Department, who has the chance to respond by July 2, Knapp said by law he should be given an opportunity to provide his side’s argument.

Knapp did acknowledge that the language in the writ does not directly say the Sheriff can respond, but faulted it in the confusing way writs are typically drafted. Knapp also pointed to the title section of Proud’s order that states he is making the ruling after “receipt of remitter.” Knapp is correct in that a remitter has not made by the appeal’s court. But the writ however, is very clear in its directions to Proud to release the report.

Autopsy reports are generally required to be made public pursuant to the Public Information Act, but Knapp said there is an exception when it comes to reports involving murder cases, when they are part of criminal investigation. He also said making the Cloer report public could endanger witnesses who testified in Thompson’s trial.

But Dixon, who plans to write a book on the case, said Proud’s ruling is crystal clear and demands that Knapp and the county comply with it.

“The trial’s over; Thompson’s been convicted,” Dixon said. “We have every right to see what really happened and if the report matches what was presented at trial.”

In the meantime, Knapp said, the report will stay sealed while he drafts a response to Proud’s order.