McElroy: Making government-ordered autopsies secret hurts the public’s right to know

(This is a column by Knoxville News Sentinel Editor Jack McElroy that appeared in the news organization’s Sunday edition.) 

Sen. Joey Hensley, a Republican from Hohenwald and a medical examiner, has introduced a bill to make autopsy reports secret. Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville is carrying the bill in the House.

Jack McElroy

The legislation may sound like a mom-and-apple-pie proposition to the average citizen. After all, what reporter could be so ghoulish as to want to examine records about how people died? Besides, shouldn’t the dead, and their families, be allowed to rest in peace rather than having gruesome details of death dragged before the public?

But let’s ponder a bit more deeply what the public won’t get to know under this legislation.

In 2015, News Sentinel reporter Jamie Satterfield used an autopsy report to disclose that a parolee was running away from a Knoxville police officer when shot. Authorities had said the officer was in a life-or-death struggle with the man. But the autopsy showed six gunshot wounds from behind, all but one from more than three feet away.

The public won’t get to know that under Hensley and Smith’s bill.

Across the state and two decades earlier, Commercial Appeal reporter Marc Perrusquia used an autopsy report to reveal that a Memphis Police Department SWAT team shot a 7-year-old through the head during a botched raid at a public housing complex. Police had tried to cover up the incident.

Such cover-ups will remain intact under Hensley and Smith’s bill.

When News Sentinel reporter Brittany Crocker was a student at the University of Missouri, she and other students investigated a synthetic drug being sold to homeless people. Their story revealed the difficulties autopsies were having detecting the way dealers kept varying the chemistry of the deadly drug.

Problems like that will remain problems under Hensley and Smith’s bill.

In 2011, the nonprofit reporting organization ProPublica found more than three dozen cases in which neglect, abuse and even murder of seniors in nursing homes had escaped the notice of authorities. The investigation, which relied heavily on autopsy reports, was part of a larger examination of shortcomings in the nation’s coroner and medical examiner offices.

In Tennessee, Hensley and Smith’s bill will make sure that information is kept from citizens.

Tennessean reporter Anita Wadhwani and News Sentinel reporter Kristi Nelson used autopsy reports on a story last year about how opioid deaths are under-reported. The reporters also have used autopsy reports to show that dangerous new drugs are on the uptick in the state.

That’ll be confidential under the Hensley/Smith plan.

Decades ago, Tamar Stieber of the Albuquerque Journal won a Pulitzer Prize for discovering that a deadly blood disorder was caused by an over-the-counter diet supplement, L-Tryptophan, which was then recalled nationally, saving countless lives. Would that story have come to light without autopsy reports?

Hensley and Smith’s bill will make sure that, in Tennessee, it doesn’t.

Autopsy reports often dispel suspicion, such as News Sentinel reporter Travis Dorman’s recent stories telling how an autopsy supported the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office’s account of an inmate jumping to his death from a balcony or how former Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner died of natural causes, without drugs in his system.

Rumors will have to rule under Hensley and Smith’s secrecy bill.

The legislation, by the way, was introduced as a “caption bill,” meaning the original draft obscured the real purpose under an innocuous description. That’s not an unusual practice, but it leaves less time for issues to be aired and understood.

Lawmakers must understand that making autopsy reports secret would seriously harm transparency, and accountability, in Tennessee government.

One thought on “McElroy: Making government-ordered autopsies secret hurts the public’s right to know

  1. Pingback: TCOG's 2018 Legislative Report - Tennessee Coalition for Open Government

What do you think?