Just who has the right to look at autopsy reports, and why – and where?

These are the questions the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will soon consider as it examines a case involving the Chester County Coroner and a west coast researcher who studies inmate deaths and prisoner treatment all across the country. The current focus is in Pennsylvania, where the researcher claims there is a “crisis of deaths” happening in jails all across the commonwealth. 

Terence Keel is a professor at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics and runs the BioCritical Studies Lab, a project made up of research assistants and alumni who investigate discrimination and inequality in vulnerable populations. Keel believes Pennsylvania’s prison system is actively ignoring a pattern of negligence or nonchalance and has sought answers from the state’s Office of Open Records. 

Two years ago, Keel filed a Right to Know Request in Chester County for the autopsies of seventeen people with dates ranging from 2008 to 2021. The county coroner denied the request, citing HIPAA’s “privacy rule” as well as invoking the state’s Coroner’s Act, which stipulates that the medical examiner has the right to deny the release of autopsy records if they might compromise an ongoing investigation or cause harm to the decedent’s privacy or next of kin. 

Keel said his interest in this work began with the murder of George Floyd – and that he’s made open records requests into prisoner deaths in Maryland, California and Florida, where he claims a number of poor, young, black and Latino men are dying in custody under suspicious circumstances. 

“What’s happening in Chester County is also happening in other counties around the state of Pennsylvania,” said Keel. “Many of these people who are dying in jails are dying in pretrial, which means that they’re dying before they’re being convicted or going in front of a judge and have not been formally sentenced. And in many cases, many of these people we believe would still be alive, if not for the way that our legal system operates.”

Up until 2018, in certain municipalities throughout Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, a person could pay a $500 fee and get a copy of an autopsy through the prothonotary’s office – except in larger counties like Philadelphia and Allegheny where the rules are different. It changed when lawmakers introduced amendments to the state’s Coroner’s Act, which effectuated significant changes to the law, including giving coroners discretion in determining who can access autopsy reports. This has hamstrung Keel’s efforts to uncover exactly what happened to the seventeen who died while in prison in Chester County. He said he just wants justice for their families. 

“Pennsylvania sits right at the center of this because of the way medical examiners and coroners have been able to deny people access to death records by doing things like making the cost incredibly prohibitive,” he said. “If you’re a poor, working-class family, and you’re trying to decide – do we challenge the county’s definition of how our son or daughter or brother or father died in custody? Or do we spend that money on a funeral? People are going to choose to spend it on a funeral.”

The current case bears similarities to a landmark 2020 legal battle involving Brittany Hailer, a journalist with the Pittsburgh Current and Allegheny County. In that case, Hailer sought access to autopsy records of an inmate who died in the county jail but her request was denied by the medical examiner. She appealed, and the Commonwealth Court ruled in her favor, ordering the county to release the records.

In the Hailer case, Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler opined: “It seems patently unfair that certain parts of the state can get these records and certain parts can’t under the Right to Know law. It feels like an absurd result.” 

Access to autopsy records are considered valuable for a number of reasons, including to members of the press in shedding light on what has happened to vulnerable populations while in prison. Just last year, an inmate at an intake center who was left alone for more than an hour died of a drug overdose at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Delaware County, according to an incident report obtained by Broad + Liberty through a Right to Know request. 

John Carnes, an attorney for the Chester County Coroner, argued that the coroner has the right to decide who views autopsy reports. 

“An autopsy is a very, very private matter. You are basically deconstructing the body. It’s kind of a shocking and alarming thing to see,” he said. “And, you know, there are privacy interests involved … Just imagine that this stuff goes out on the internet. You wouldn’t want your grandparents or your parents bodies exposed to public review. I mean, it’s a major concern.”

In court documents, Carnes argued that the duty of the coroner is solely to determine the cause and manner of death and to safeguard the privacy of sensitive information, such as DNA, toxicology reports and an autopsy report, details of which can be gruesome. 

He said: “Why should the Right to Know law be turned into a vehicle that renders the duties of the prothonotary – which involve working for the public and working for the individuals who have died and making a determination of cause and manner of death – be turned into a vehicle whereby the most private information should be released to the public instantaneously? Isn’t that something that a coroner might feel strongly about and want to protect?” 

Keel said he is going to keep fighting Chester County – and any other government entity who tries to impede his work. He said he hopes the state Supreme Court dismisses the county’s appeal and upholds the Commonwealth Court’s prior ruling. 

“What I think the county is doing is trying to undermine the public disclosure mandate, and in the process, undermine the democratic process of investigating people who are dying under suspicious and untimely circumstances,” Keel said. “Wouldn’t we want to live in a state where people had access to information when people are dying suspiciously in jail – and wouldn’t we want to know why they’re dying?”

Jenny DeHuff has been a multimedia journalist for the past fifteen years in Philadelphia. Her bylines include the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, Playboy Magazine, City & State PA, and Philly Voice. She’s won multiple awards for investigative journalism. @RuffTuffDH

Leave a (Respectful) Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *