Bill to remove public info from autopsy reports will be revised

The Oklahoma State Medical Examiner's office has no shortage of controversy in its history. There have been attempts in the past by lawmakers that would have removed the public’s ability to scrutinize the agency by removing details of autopsy reports from the public record.

A bill filled this session would have done just that, by removing all details about the cause of death from being released to anyone but family members. However, the bill’s author Senator Stephanie Bice, R-Oklahoma City, is now reworking her proposal. She told FOX 25 it is in an effort to protect the families of victims while also protecting the public access to records.

“No parent should ever have to read about the death of their child before they know the details in a newspaper,” Bice said.

A family in eastern Oklahoma had requested a copy of an autopsy report for their son. The medical examiner’s office mailed one to them, but emailed to the media. Bice said the family read details of their son’s death in a local newspaper which included speculation that other family members may share a genetic disorder that led to their son’s death.

Bice said she does not want to leave it to the medical examiner to change policy to ensure other families are not impacted in this way.

“I think it is better to have it put into statute so there are clear guidelines as to when that information can be released,” Bice told FOX 25.

The revised proposal would enact a waiting period between when autopsy reports are sent to families and when they can be released to the public.

The revisions would also allow prosecutors to request autopsy reports be sealed to protect investigations. District attorneys would have to ask a judge to seal those records.

Past efforts to change the medical examiner's office public information releases have run into issues because in order to receive accreditation the medical examiner's office has to be an independent agency and not part of law enforcement.

“The new language is actually going to model some of the body cam language that has been agreed upon by the press and the law enforcement community,” Bice said.

Reviews of medical examiner records also have impact on insurance agencies and researchers. Some researchers that rely on reviewing autopsy reports are those who look into child deaths.

FOX 25 has revealed medical examiner documents point to potential problems with reporting child deaths. FOX 25 was only able to find those details by reviewing detailed autopsy reports.

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