OLYMPIA – Spokane County’s medical examiners may soon have no legal barrier that stops them from talking about the results of investigations into deaths that involve actions by law enforcement officers.
A unanimous Senate passed a bill Tuesday allowing medical examiners to discuss the results of autopsies and post mortems of people who die in encounters with police or while in jail. A unanimous House passed the same bill last week, and it’s headed to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk.
To emphasize that such comments will be permissible, sponsor Mike Padden, the Spokane Valley Republican who heads the Senate Law and Justice Committee, engaged in a bit of rehearsed dialogue with the panel’s top Democrat, Adam Kline of Seattle, before the vote.
The bill “is intended to protect the ability of a coroner or medical examiner to discuss cases, not limit it,” Padden said in what’s technically known as a colloquy, a statement for the record that makes clear the intent of the Legislature.
The law that keeps the records and other papers from autopsies confidential remains in effect, he said. There are no restrictions on discussing the findings of other deaths they investigate that don’t involve law enforcement or incarceration.
Spokane County officials pushed for the bill after several high-profile deaths involving law enforcement. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said it would help clear up “misinformation and myths” about some controversial cases, including one last September. In that case, he insisted deputies responded appropriately when they shot a man who they mistakenly thought had a weapon, but orders from the medical examiner’s office kept him from commenting.
In most counties, medical examiners and coroners see no legal barriers to talking about those investigations, Kline said. In Seattle and King County, deaths involving law enforcement or persons in custody go to a public inquest “as a matter of course,” he said.
Spokane Police Ombudsman Tim Burns, Knezovich and representatives of the Center for Justice have supported inquests for those cases in Spokane. Medical Examiner John Howard opposes the idea, saying they would be “public spectacles” that would waste public resources.
The Senate had passed the bill in March, and then it picked up an amendment in the House specifying that it would only apply to future cases and protecting coroners and medical examiners from any liability for the release of information.