Bill would ease rules on autopsy privacy
OLYMPIA – Medical examiners would be able to discuss the results of autopsies in cases involving police shootings, giving them a chance to clear up what Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich refers to as “misinformation and myths” in some controversial cases, under a bill being considered by the Senate.
The proposal, sponsored by Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, is designed to lift some confidentiality restrictions on autopsy reports when a death occurs in the custody of a law enforcement officer or during police contact.
Confidentiality restrictions, which under state law cover most autopsy and post-mortem investigation reports, also would be lifted for deaths that occur in a prison or jail.
If the proposed law were in effect, Knezovich said he’d be able to explain details of cases like the Sept. 5 death of Edward Gover, who returned to the home of a woman he’d held hostage and encountered deputies who thought he had a weapon. They said they fired when he charged them, but no weapon was found and two of the bullets struck Gover in the back.
Knezovich said the deputies responded appropriately, but he couldn’t discuss the autopsy findings because of orders from the county medical examiner’s office.
The bill wasn’t prompted by the shooting, Knezovich said, but it would allow him to explain key details of the Gover case. He discussed changes with Medical Examiner John Howard, county commissioners and Padden during the summer.
“The public is interested in what is going on” in deaths that involve police activities, Padden said. In some counties, a coroner or medical examiner will hold an inquest to help answer questions about the death, but in others, including Spokane County, medical examiners don’t hold inquests.
James McMahan, executive director for the state’s county officials organization, told the Senate Law and Justice Committee the original bill Padden introduced was too broad, but suggested some changes that he thought the group would support.
It would add a section to the law that nothing “shall prohibit a coroner or medical examiner from discussing his or her conclusions as to the cause, manner or mechanism of death” in cases involving law enforcement action or deaths in prisons.
The committee is scheduled to vote on a revised version of the bill on Tuesday.